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Turkey to Bring Coup Conspirators to Trial


Eighty-six defendants accused of trying to overthrow Turkey's ruling party are scheduled to go on trial Monday in an Istanbul court. Dorian Jones reports that it will be the first time Turkish military officials have faced trial in an attempted coup.

The case started a year ago, when an arms cache was discovered in a house in one of Istanbul's poorest suburbs. According to chief prosecutor Aykut Cengiz Engin, the discovery revealed a group called Ergenekon, made up of former army officers, members of extreme nationalist groups and leading journalists, was seeking to overthrow the government.

Engin says the indictment covers crimes such as forming an armed terror group and attempting to overthrow the government by force, seeking to provoke public disorder and armed rebellion.

The 2,500-page indictment details an alleged plan to destabilize the country through bombings and assassinations, as a precursor to a military coup.

The governing Justice and Development Party, also called the AK Party, with its Islamic roots, is seen by some as a threat to the secular state. The Turkish army, which views itself as the guardian of secularism, has seized power in Turkey three times since 1960.

According to analysts, the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy traces its roots to the Cold War, when secret organizations with ties to extreme right-wing political parties formed in various European countries to counter a possible invasion by the Soviet Union.

According to Taraf newspaper deputy editor Yasmin Congar, the Ergenekon group evolved into a powerful anti-democratic force in Turkish politics. She says the trial is important for the future of Turkish democracy.

"[It] probably [is] the most important trial in this country's history, because it is about digging out the dirt within the state, and digging out all these secret institutions, secret organizations which [are] allegedly behind many, many crimes in this country. If we manage to do that, if the country's prosecutors, manage to get to the end of this, Turkey will be a more democratic more transparent and definitely more secure and more transparent country," said Congar.

The Ergenekon investigation has implicated some of the alleged conspirators in last year's assassination of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

His murder shocked the country with his funeral drawing thousands of people. Prosecutors allege that Ergenekon members were also planning a series of assassinations of other liberal figures in Turkey, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

Critics of the case say the investigation is being used to silence government opponents.

Despite massive pro-secular demonstrations against the AK Party last year, its candidate Abdullah Gul won the presidency following the party's victory in general elections. Some of those detained in the Ergenekon investigation were organizers of the protests, along with leading journalists of newspapers critical of the AK Party.

Journalist and government critic Mine Kirikkanat says more than crime suspects were detained.

She says she is afraid, and that all of her friends are afraid. She says that at any time, the police can arrest you and imprison you for months without charge. This conspiracy only involves mafia people, she says, but most of those arrested are just opponents of the government. She adds that the AK Party is using the investigation to silence its critics.

Under an anti-terror law passed last year, many of the detained have been held for months without trial. Political scientist Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Bilgi University says he is concerned about the process.

"The job has been done in a very sloppy way, in that the rules of the game have not been properly observed and to a certain extent probably [have] been politicized. There was this kind of ends-justify-means approach that ultimately may hurt the case," said Ozel.

A former Turkish judge on the European Court of Human rights, Riza Tumen, warns that the methods used in the investigation could lead to convictions being overturned by the European court. But Soli Ozel says that whatever the outcome of the case, the fact that military officials and the state are being held accountable has ushered in a new era in Turkey.

"The peculiarity of our democracy was that election of leaders by the ballot box and the military interventions were in there own frameworks considered legitimate. And it is obvious that military coups are no longer considered legitimate," said Ozel. "And [that] shows a degree maturation for Turkish democracy that is cause for rejoicing."

Analysts say the case may have already succumbed to the political polarization of Turkish society. But with the Ergenekon case having dominated the country's media for the past year, it is being seen by critics and supporters of the government as a landmark in Turkish history.
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