Osman Orsal / Reuters file
General Ilker Basbug salutes during a military exercise in Izmir, Turkey, on May 26, 2010.
SILIVRI, Turkey -- The trial of a Turkish former armed forces chief accused of heading a terrorist group is due to begin on Monday.
General Ilker Basbug branded the case against him as tragi-comic when he was first detained in January. While bewildered by the accusations, he said he was not shocked, given how prosecutors have pursued other officers in the past three years.
Basbug, chief of staff from 2008 to 2010, is accused of being a leader of a shadowy network dubbed "Ergenekon", said to be behind a string of alleged, but as yet unproven, plots against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Ilkay Sezer, the general's lawyer, is expected to ask for the case to be transferred to the Supreme Court, as befitting a state official of Basbug's seniority, though earlier requests were rejected.
The 68-year-old retiree is the most senior officer among hundreds of secularists facing conspiracy and terrorism charges.
For many Turks it had appeared increasingly likely that the special prosecutors, given free rein to investigate by the government, would work their way to the top of the military chain of command in their hunt for anti-government conspiracies.
During his pre-trial detention Basbug has shared a cell with two other generals in the top-security prison at Silivri, west of Istanbul, where a courtroom has been specially built to hear Ergenekon- and "Sledgehammer"-related cases.
War game or blueprints for a coup?
Police say they discovered Ergenekon when they seized a secret arms cache in 2007, yet many Turks still doubt it exists.
Basbug is just a witness in the Sledgehammer case, which revolves around a 2003 seminar that prosecutors say contained blueprints for a coup, though the military says it was just a war game. Some 365 people are being tried in the case.
Turkey's generals traditionally saw themselves as guardians of the secular state envisaged by the republic's founder, soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like the judiciary, they distrusted Erdogan and other members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with an Islamist past.
The military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced an Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to quit in 1997. These days, however, it is Erdogan who cracks the whip in Turkey as he enters his second decade in power.
On April 4, the court in Ankara will hold the first hearing in the trial of generals who led the 1980 coup, including 94-year-old former military chief and ex-president Kenan Evren.
The case against Basbug features websites allegedly set up by the military to spread "black propaganda" against the government until 2008.
Tension between the military and the AKP was running high in 2007 when the generals opposed the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency because of his Islamist pedigree. They never regained their clout after failing to cow Erdogan and Gul.
With strong public support, the AKP government brought the military to heel with democratic reforms. Endless investigations into coup plots tarnished the image of the once untouchable top brass.
Basbug has denied the charges against him, and his lawyer told Reuters earlier this month that the indictment was filled with inconsistencies and lacked credibility.
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