Turkey arrests leader's critics

Police have arrested critics of the prime minister over suspected involvement in a plot to overthrow the government.

The retired Turkish general Hursit Tolon (right), flanked by police officers, is taken for a medical check up after he was detained by police.
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ISTANBUL // On the same day Turkey's chief prosecutor made his final appeal to the constitutional court to ban the ruling party, political tensions rose dramatically yesterday after police arrested prominent critics of the prime minister over suspected involvement in a plot to overthrow the government. "Everybody who defends the secular and democratic republic is being arrested," said Mustafa Ozyurek, a leading member of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, a Kemalist opposition group. The CHP accuses Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of having a secret agenda to turn Turkey into an Islamist state.

Zeki Sezer, the leader of the Democratic Left Party, or DSP, a smaller Kemalist opposition party, said it was no coincidence that the arrests came on the same day that the AKP trial entered its final stage. "There are efforts to create an empire of fear," Mr Sezer said. News of the escalating political tensions spooked investors with the country's benchmark stock index dropping as much as six per cent during the day, before making a slight recovery, CNN-Turk news channel reported.

Raiding apartments and offices in the capital Ankara and in Istanbul, police arrested retired generals Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon as well as Sinan Aygun, the head of Ankara's Chamber of Trade, and Mustafa Balbay, a prominent opposition journalist. The offices of Balbay's newspaper, Cumhuriyet, in Ankara were searched by police. In Istanbul, the building of a second newspaper, the right-leaning Tercuman, were also raided by police.

In all, 25 people were arrested in Ankara, Istanbul and the northeastern city of Trabzon, media reports said. The arrests were ordered by a senior prosecutor in Istanbul who has been investigating an alleged plot by a nationalist gang to provoke a military coup against Mr Erdogan's government, officials said. The gang, known as Ergenekon after a legend about the origins of the Turkish people in Central Asia, consisted of former military officers, lawyers and journalists, according to the prosecution. More than 40 people have been arrested in recent months, including Veli Kucuk, the alleged gang leader who is a former general, but there is no date for a trial yet.

As police searched houses and arrested suspected plotters, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief prosecutor, summed up his case against the AKP before the constitutional court in Ankara. According to Turkish media reports, Mr Yalcinkaya said the AKP, which won nearly 47 per cent at the general elections last summer, should be banned because it wanted to introduce sharia law in Turkey. There was a "clear and present danger" to the secular republic because of the AKP, Mr Yalcinkaya was quoted as saying during his 90-minute presentation before the court.

Tomorrow, the court will hear representatives of the AKP. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks. Most observers in Ankara think the court, which is predominantly made up of critics of Mr Erdogan, will dissolve the AKP, a decision that would most likely result in early elections this autumn. The trial against the AKP is widely seen as an effort by Turkey's traditional Kemalist elites to fight off a political challenge by a rising class of observant Muslims, led by Mr Erdogan.

The confrontation between Kemalists, who say they stand for the secular values of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Mr Erdogan's class of the so-called "Anatolian bourgeoisie" is also part of the alleged motives of the Ergenekon group. Media reports said Ergenekon wanted to provoke a military coup against Mr Erdogan's government by committing terrorist attacks. Mr Eruygur, one of the two former generals arrested yesterday, leads the Kemalist Association for Ataturk's Ideas. According to press reports, Mr Eruygur was involved in a plot to overthrow Mr Erdogan's government when he was head of the Turkish Gendarmerie forces in 2004. The planned coup was headed off by the army leadership at the time, the reports said.

"I am accused of loving Ataturk and the republic," Mr Aygun, the head of the Ankara Chamber of Trade, said after his arrest. A crowd of about 100 people carrying Ataturk posters and Turkish flags staged a protest against the arrests in front of the Cumhuriyet offices in Ankara. "We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal," the crowd chanted. Mr Ozyurek of the CHP claimed police acted without the permission of the state prosecutor, thereby suggesting that the AKP was behind the arrests. While the judiciary is generally seen as being anti-AKP, Mr Erdogan's critics said the government has put its followers in leading positions of the police force. Ali Sirmen, a writer at Cumhuriyet, told CNN-Turk that "everybody who is against turning [Turkey] into an Islamic republic is under serious threat".

Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, a leading AKP politician, rejected the accusations. "We have to respect the decisions of the judiciary," Mr Firat, the AKP's deputy leader, told reporters. Asked about the CHP's assertion that police had acted alone when arresting the suspects, Mr Firat said there had been an order by the prosecution before the police action. "The police do not do something on their own," he said.

Muammer Guler, Istanbul's governor, and Istanbul's state prosecutor's office also said the arrests were made after an order by a prosecutor. Some news reports said the prosecution had ordered the arrests on Sunday but that police had waited until yesterday. Ismet Berkan, a leading liberal commentator and editor-in-chief of the reformist daily Radikal, said the arrests were key events in the investigation against Ergenekon. "For the first time, the big fish have been caught," Mr Berkan told CNN-Turk.

Some of Mr Erdogan's opponents have criticised the prosecution for deliberately going slow on the investigation in an effort to intimidate government critics, but media reports said the Ergenekon investigation has not been completed because new evidence is being unearthed all the time. Mr Erdogan said yesterday he expected a charge sheet to be drawn up and a trial to start soon.