ISTANBUL - A former Turkish military chief suspected of leading an Internet campaign to stir revolt was jailed yesterday in a sweeping investigation of alleged conspiracies to topple a civilian government that has stripped the armed forces of political clout.
General Ilker Basbug, 68, was the most senior officer to face trial in the antiterror probes that began years ago, netting hundreds of suspects, many of them retired and active-duty military officers. The government casts the inquiries as a triumph for the rule of law and democracy, but suspicions of score-settling, long imprisonments without verdicts, and other lapses have tainted the legal process.
The investigations serve as a pivotal test for Turkey’s ability to put its own house in order even as it seeks a higher profile in a turbulent region where the Turkish brand of electoral politics and Islam-inspired government is viewed by some as worthy of emulation.
Perhaps most notable about Basbug’s arrest was the muted public response in a country where civilian leaders were once beholden to the generals, and any hint of conflict stirred fears of a coup.
The power balance shifted in the past decade as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan undermined the premise that the military brass were the untouchable guardians of secularism, as enshrined in the constitution.
The Turkish military is a part of the national fabric, cloaked in the lore of sacrifice and a conduit for millions of young men who join as conscripts. It assists ably in Afghanistan and other NATO missions, but its private network of construction and other businesses, and a slowness to move toward an all-volunteer force, suggests the institution will be uncomfortable with reforms for some time.
The military suffered a blow to its reputation last week when 35 civilians were mistakenly killed in an airstrike meant to target Kurdish rebels, though outrage among Kurds was directed as much at civilian leaders as the generals.
Basbug was arrested and placed in a prison near Istanbul after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors investigating allegations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at discrediting Erdogan’s government in 2009. Basbug, who retired in August 2010, led the military at the time.
Some suspects already charged in the case, including senior generals and admirals, have proclaimed their innocence and said they acted in a chain of command.
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,’’ he said.