Turkey jails former leader of its once-exalted military

The jailing of Turkey's former top military official, pending a trial on charges of terrorism and plotting to bring down the government, is only the latest of hundreds of arrests of those who pose a threat to the government's power.

Turkey's former Chief of Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, center left, is surounded by security officials as he arrives at a prosecutor's office in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday. Gen. Basburg was questioned Friday about accusations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at undermining the Turkish government.

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Turkey's top military official until 2010 was jailed today on charges of supporting terrorism and conspiring to bring down the government. The arrest of Gen. Ilker Basburg, the former chief of general staff, is the latest in a series of arrests this year of military officials, politicians, journalists, activists, and academics, which have prompted warnings that the "democratic model" of the Middle East is sliding into authoritarianism.

The government has been investigating a series of alleged antigovernment plots within the military. Gen. Basburg was questioned today about accusations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at undermining the Turkish government. Many other lower-ranking military officials have already been questioned, saying that they were merely acting in a chain of command, the Washington Post reports. Hundreds have been put on trial.

Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the political clout of Turkey's military – formerly the country's most powerful institution – has been greatly reduced. For decades the military called the shots in the country, staging three coups, and kept the country relentlessly secular, forcing an Islamist prime minister to quit at one point. Last year, the nation's top four military leaders resigned in protest of the arrests of military officials, the Washington Post reports. Some 58 active generals or admirals are in jail, according to the military.

The government's successful reduction of the military's power has been popular with the public, but the "wide net" cast in investigations and the prosecution of the suspects in the coup plot cases under antiterrorism laws has concerned even those who want to see the military's influence reduced, the Wall Street Journal reports. Defendants argue that the coup plot cases are a political tool to "discredit and weaken" the military.

"The fact that prosecutors are now touching senior generals is a turning point in the democratisation process of Turkey. Many were sceptical that prosecutors would go this far," military affairs analyst Lale Kemal told Reuters. "I would not be surprised if we see some commanders resign (if Basbug is remanded in custody) but I do not expect this to bring serious instability to Turkey," she said.

Turkey's economic success and growing political influence have discouraged substantial criticism of its increasingly frequent investigations based on little evidence, broad police powers, and the arrest of lawyers, among other antidemocratic developments, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The Turkish economy was projected to grow 7.5 percent in 2011.

With that kind of success, the Turkish public has been unwilling to rock the boat by speaking out against the 100-plus journalists in prison, or any of the other recent developments, according to Reuters.

Basburg denied the charges, calling it a "tragicomedy" that the former leader of one of the world's strongest armies would face such accusations, The New York Times reports. “It is very sad, and hard to understand,” he said during the interrogation. “If authorities have failed to discover any of this misconduct that I am claimed to have committed in active duty, then all is incomprehensible.”

According to the Washington Post, the conspiracy against the government was first reported by a Turkish newspaper in 2009. The paper printed a copy of the alleged plan to damage the government's reputation, but the subsequent investigation turned up nothing concrete – the original document could not be found. The investigation resumed last year, reportedly because a military officer found the original document and sent it to the country's chief prosecutor.

According to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News, the opposition party has been outspoken about its disappointment with the investigation.

Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu commented on the arrest, saying the decision was made by political authorities and then confirmed by the court.  

Kılıçdaroğlu also said he had "no faith that specially authorized courts" would achieve justice. 

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