Gen. Ilker Basbug was arrested and placed in a prison near Istanbul overnight after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors investigating allegations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at discrediting the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009.
Some of the suspects already charged in the case, including senior generals and admirals, have said they acted in a chain of command. Basbug, who retired in August 2010, led the military at the time.
The jailing of a former military chief — unimaginable a few years back — comes as the government, which has won three successive elections, has sharply reduced the political clout of the military. Military leaders have staged three coups and forced an Islamist prime minister to quit in 1997.
Basbug’s lawyer, Ilkay Sezer said his client has denied accusations during questioning. NTV television said the former general told court officials the charges were “tragicomical.”
“If I am being accused of bringing down the government with a couple of press statements and one or two Internet stories, this is very bitter,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Basbug as saying, citing court papers.
“If I had such bad intentions, as the commander of a 700,000-strong force, there would have been other ways of doing it.”
Basbug told journalists before being taken to prison: “The 26th Chief of Military Staff of the Turkish Republic is being accused of forming and leading a terror organization. I leave it up to the great Turkish people to decide.”
The alleged conspiracy was first reported by a Turkish newspaper in 2009, which printed a photocopy of an alleged plan to damage the reputation of the government by portraying it as corrupt. Investigations into the reported conspiracy were inconclusive because the original document, allegedly signed by a navy colonel, could not be found. The probe was revived last year after an unidentified military officer allegedly sent the original document to Istanbul’s chief prosecutor.
Hundreds of people, including civilians, retired generals and active-duty officers, are already on trial accused of terrorism charges for alleged involvement in separate plots that prosecutors say were aimed at destabilizing Turkey and bringing the government down. The military says 58 serving generals or admirals are in jail.
Erdogan’s opponents see the trials as a government effort to intimidate them through the courts while the long imprisonments without verdicts and alleged irregularities in the handling of evidence have cast doubts over the legal process.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the pro-secular opposition party, criticized the arrest saying courts prosecuting the anti-government plots were “not distributing justice” but “approving decisions taken by the political authorities.”
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said he could not comment on a legal process but said he hoped the trial would be “fair and quick.”
Last year, the nation’s top four military commanders, including the chief of staff that succeeded Basbug, resigned in protest against the arrests and prosecutions of military officers.