TURKEY: Coup trial seen as vital to 'normalization' of military's relationship to government
Nearly 200 mostly military personnel accused of plotting to bomb mosques and assassinate journalists as part of a plan to overthrow the government went on trial Thursday in Istanbul in a milestone case many observers have characterized as a key step in the process to demilitarize Turkish politics.
The alleged coup, dubbed the "sledgehammer" plot, was reportedly planned for 2003 but only came to light in February of this year when the Turkish newspaper Taraf obtained documents it claimed laid out a detailed plan for overthrowing the government.
According to the Taraf report, the alleged coup-plotters intended to sow unrest by blowing up two Istanbul mosques and provoking the Greek military into shooting down a Turkish fighter jet. They are also accused of planning to assassinate 19 journalists, arrest 36 others and “make use of” 137 others.
"The relationship [between the civilian and military branches of government] is normalizing, and Turkey is in a process of transition from a tutelary democracy controlled by the military to a normal democracy," Sahin Alpay, a senior lecturer in political science at Bahcesehir University, told Babylon and Beyond. "There is public support also in the country for normal role for the military ... as a normal, professional army."
Turkey has been caught in a tug of war between the military and civilian branches of government for decades, with the armed forces maintaining a powerful influence over domestic and foreign policies and periodically stepping in to overthrow the governments seen as too sympathetic towards Islamism.
Partly due to reforms introduced as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the military's role over the last 10 years has been questioned, and the trial of the alleged coup-plotters has been seen by many as an important step to reigning in what was the nation's most powerful institution. Among the defendant are many high-ranking officers, including four admirals, a general, and two colonels, according to the BBC.
But supporters of the military see it as a vital bulwark of secularism against the rise of conservative Islam, and have accused the government of fabricating the alleged coup in order to consolidate its own power.
"It's very difficult because we don't have any opinion polls on this, but I don't think the trial is that polarizing among Turks," said Mensur Akgun, an expert at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a think tank.
"By and large [most people] do trust the judiciary, and I think the majority of Turks believe [the charges] have some substance," he added. "This is another milestone in the emancipation of Turkish democracy from the control of the military."
The opening of the trial followed a setback earlier this week for Turkey's bid to join to EU when accession talks stalled over Turkey's unsettled dispute with Greece and Cyprus over the status of the northern part of the island, which is currently under Turkish control.
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Security teams guard an Istanbul courthouse Tuesday, where proceedings relating to the coup plot were taking place. Credit: Ibrahim Usta / Associated Press