ISTANBUL (AFP)–Two retired Turkish generals and 54 co-accused went on trial Monday over an alleged coup plot in a case that has deepened the rifts between secularists and the Islamist-rooted government.
Some 200 people demonstrated outside the courthouse near Istanbul, branding the charges as a fabrication to silence government opponents.
The generals, accused of being the plot’s ringleaders, are the most senior military figures to stand trial on coup charges in a country where the army has toppled four governments since 1960.
Other defendants include journalists and academics known as critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the moderate offshoot of a banned Islamist group which opponents accuse of undermining Turkey’s secular system.
The 1,909-page charge sheet says Sener Eruygur, former commander of the gendarmerie forces, and Hursit Tolon, former top army commander, “began implementing the coup plans they drew up in 2003-2004 while in office and continued their activities after they retired.”
Both in their late 60s, they risk life sentences if convicted.
Eruygur, who suffered a serious brain trauma after falling from stairs in prison, was not present at the hearing, which dealt largely with procedural formalities.
Coup allegations first surfaced in March 2007 when a magazine published excerpts from the purported diary of the former navy chief, which described how several generals plotted coups but failed to secure support of top commanders.
Following retirement, the indictment says, Eruygur and Tolon used civic groups to incite public opinion against the AKP in line with their aims.
Eruygur was the head of a secularist association that led mass rallies against the AKP in 2007.
The two are accused of being leaders of Ergenekon, a nationalist-secularist network which allegedly had a broader plan to plunge Turkey into political chaos, using assassinations of prominent people, to pave the way for a coup.
Among the suspects in the dock Monday were two senior journalists — Tuncay Ozkan and Mustafa Balbay, whose alleged diary mentions purported coup plots.
Ozkan, who spoke briefly at the hearing, slammed the case as a politically-motivated campaign against AKP opponents.
“I am a political prisoner. I did not commit any crime,” he said, urging the court “not to let the government gag neither me nor others.”
The court adjourned the trial to August 6 to consider a series of procedural objections by the defense.
About 200 people demonstrated outside the court in support of the suspects, brandishing national flags and portraits of Ataturk, Turkey’s secularist founder.
“This trial is a lie. They are fabricating evidence to arrest Ataturk’s followers,” one protestor, Suzan Demirten, said.
The 56 suspects are the second group to go on trial in the Ergenekon case, following a first group of 86 people, whose trial began in October.
Prosecutors announced Monday they were bringing charges against another 52 suspects, whose trial can start if the indictment is approved by the courts, Anatolia news agency reported.
The new charge sheet also detailed a long list of weapons discovered as part of the Ergenekon probe, which began in June 2007, including more than 200 guns and rifles, about 420 hand grenades, and three homemade bombs.
The investigation was initially hailed as a success for targetting the so-called “deep state” — a term used to describe officials acting outside the law to protect what they see as Turkey’s best interests.
But prosecutors came under fire for being government cronies and deliberately casting their nets too wide after they began targetting secularist academics, writers and journalists known as AKP opponents.
Several suspects have claimed they never owned the documents implicating them in the affair, accusing the government-controlled police of fabricating evidence.