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Seven high-ranking Turkish military officers were charged on Wednesday with plotting a coup against the country’s Islamist-leaning government, two days after as many as 50 officers were arrested and accused of belonging to the plot.
It is the first time that civilian authorities have headed off an alleged coup by the country’s powerful military, which has overthrown four governments since 1960. While some opposition figures have cried foul, other players – including the US and EU – have called for transparency in this case and adherence to the rule of law in Turkey, NATO’s only member with a Muslim majority.
The Sofia Echo of Bulgaria calls the arrests “a political earthquake” and the Associated Press says they are “the highest profile crackdown ever on the military,” which is seen as the traditional defender of the secular state established in 1923.
The so-called "sledgehammer case" is notable for how many top military figures it has ensnared. Reuters reports that the Istanbul court jailed four admirals, a retired brigadier-general and two retired colonels. Until a formal indictment can be made, Reuters says the seven men stand accused of membership in a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the government.
Prosecutors continue to question several other high-ranking figures, says the AP, including the former chiefs of the Navy, Air Force and Special forces. Turkish paper Today’s Zaman reports that 49 military officers were arrested over all, including 17 retired generals, four admirals, 27 other officers of various ranks and one noncommissioned officer.
The US and EU issued statements on Monday calling for the investigation to be carried out “transparently and in accordance with Turkish law,” says Today’s Zaman. It reports that European Commissioner Štefan Füle told reporters in Brussels that “judicial and constitutional reform and civilian oversight over the military” were among the EU’s biggest priorities for Turkey.
The alleged coup plans were hatched in 2003, says the BBC, and recently uncovered by the left-leaning Taraf newspaper. It “said it had discovered documents detailing plans to bomb two Istanbul mosques and provoke Greece into shooting down a Turkish plane over the Aegean Sea.”
BBC says the plan may be connected to the 2008 Ergenekon plot in which military figures planned to foment unrest that would set the state for a coup. The Turkish government made 23 pre-dawn arrests in its own case against an ultranationalist gang called "Ergenekon," which it says sought to sow chaos to prompt a military coup against the elected Islamic-rooted government, the Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. According to the AP, as many as 400 people have been arrested as part of the Ergenekon investigation, which has yielded no convictions.
The Sofia Echo reports a mixed public reaction inside Turkey. Some commentators have hailed it a step forward for democracy while others have take a dimmer view.
"It's historic, it is something that the country has never seen before, I mean four star generals although retired, have been arrested en masse. I think it’s the beginning of a new era, we are at the very beginning of the demilitarization process in this country, like in Spain, Greece, and Portugal in the 70s and the 80s,” Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Bachesehir University, told The Echo.
But political analyst Nuray Mert disagreed, calling the arrests a symptom of Turkey’s political polarization between pro- and anti-government forces.
"Everything is divided into two, society is divided into two, judiciary is also divided into two. So under the circumstances there can't be any kind resolution of the crisis, within the judiciary," Mert said.