ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish authorities detained at least 24 ultra-nationalists, including two prominent retired generals, on Tuesday in a widening police investigation into a suspected coup plot against the government.
Police swooped shortly before the Constitutional Court began hearing a legal case in which the governing AK Party is charged with trying to establish an Islamic state and could be closed, a move that might lead to an early parliamentary election.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the detentions were linked to a long-running investigation into Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultra-nationalist and hardline secularist group accused of seeking a coup.
"It is not the AK Party which they cannot tolerate. What they can’t tolerate is democracy, the national will, the people’s feelings and thoughts," Erdogan said.
State news agency Anatolian said at least 25 people, including two prominent retired generals and the Ankara head of the secularist daily Cumhuriyet, were among the detained. Media said another former general was being sought by police.
"These are prominent people and their common point is their loyalty to secularism. The (government) wants to turn society into an empire of fear," Mustafa Ozyurek, a senior lawmaker in the main opposition party CHP, told broadcaster NTV.
Anatolian named the retired generals who were detained as Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur, the former head of the paramilitary gendarmerie forces and head of a powerful secularist association. Ankara Chamber of Commerce chairman Sinan Aygun was also detained.
Turkey, while predominantly Muslim, has a secular constitution, and the military considers itself the ultimate guardian of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It remains at odds with the AK Party over the role of religion in public life, an issue which has polarized Turkey for decades.
Turkey has had four military coups in the last 50 years.
Political analysts say Ergenekon is part of the shadowy "deep state", code for hardline nationalists in Turkey’s security forces and state bureaucracy who are ready to take the law into their own hands for the sake of their own agenda.
More than 40 people, including former army officers, lawyers and journalists have been arrested over the past year for suspected links to Ergenekon. The military, which has repeatedly criticized the government and considers itself the guardian of Turkey’s secular system, has denied any links to the group.
No formal charges have been brought against them but Anatolian news agency reported judicial sources as saying an indictment should be ready by the end of the week.
Half of those detained on Tuesday were members of the powerful Kemalist Thought Association (ADD), a group promoting the principles of modern Turkey’s founder, Hurriyet daily said. ADD helped push millions of Turks onto the streets to protest against the election of former foreign minister Abdullah Gul as president last year, sparking an early parliamentary election.
The secularist establishment, including army generals and judges, suspects the AK Party of harboring a hidden Islamist agenda. The party, which embraces nationalists, market liberals and centre-right politicians as well as religious conservatives, denies the accusations.
Shortly after the detentions, Turkey’s chief prosecutor outlined his case in the Constitutional Court to close the AK Party, which was re-elected only last year.
The prosecutor also wants to ban 71 political figures, including Erdogan, from party politics for five years for seeking to turn officially secular, but predominantly Muslim, Turkey into an Islamic state.
The AK Party denies the charges and says they are politically motivated. A ruling could come as early as August.
Turkish courts have banned more than 20 parties for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities. A predecessor to the AK Party was banned in 2001.
If the AK Party is closed and Erdogan removed from power, analysts expect an early parliamentary election will follow.
Political analysts say the likelihood of the AK Party being closed down has increased since the Constitutional Court last month overturned a government-led move to allow students to wear the Islamic headscarf at university.
"Is this a coincidence that the (police) operation on our offices comes at the same time as the oral statement by the chief prosecutor?" asked Cumhuriyet columnist Cuneyt Arcayurek.
The court case reflects a power struggle between two rival elites as much as a decades-old differences in opinion over whether restrictions on practicing Islam should be eased.