ISTANBUL The jailing of journalists in a Turkish anti-government conspiracy investigation is arousing concerns that Turkey is becoming more authoritarian and polarised as it prepares for June's parliamentary election.
Such fears create another obstacle in Turkey's bid to join the European Union, just as it was being held up as a model for democracy in Muslim nations amid Middle East turmoil.
The investigation of a secret ultra-nationalist network called Ergenekon will be four years old when voters go to the polls in June, but with several hundred defendants still on trial, unease about the direction of the case is growing.
"What we see now is civilian authoritarianism becoming more blatant," said Gareth Jenkins, an analyst who has written extensively about the Ergenekon investigation.
"Unless something is done to rein in these politically motivated cases we are going to see Turkey moving towards an increasingly authoritarian and repressive society," he said.
The arrest of a dozen journalists over alleged links to the coup plot prompted an EU warning to Ankara about its democratic credentials and the United States expressed concern and called for a transparent investigation.
Journalists led a demonstration by thousands of people through Istanbul on Sunday to protest against the arrests.
President Abdullah Gul voiced worry that developments in the case were overshadowing Turkey's image, which improved greatly thanks to political reform and strong growth since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party first came to power in 2002.
Plaudits for Turkey's progress in boosting democratisation and creating a more open society are giving way to concerns such as those voiced in a European Parliament resolution this week about a deterioration in press freedom and censorship.
In a credit note on Turkey, Moody's Investor Service pointed to heightened political controversy generated by the Ergenekon case as a factor in its event risk ranking of medium for Turkey.
That risk has not yet unsettled investors but speculation about the potential for greater authoritarianism has grown.
"Some seasoned investors have started to wonder whether the system of governance is moving toward something that resembles Putin's Russia," said Eurasia Group analyst Wolfango Piccoli.
POLARISATION OF SOCIETY
Erdogan's Turkey has actually eroded the authoritarianism of the military-dominated secularist establishment over the last decade, reining in the power of the generals who led three coups between 1960-1980 and toppled another government in 1997.
The deep divisions between secularists and the conservative AK Party are coming to a head in the Ergenekon trials. Critics believe AK has an Islamist agenda and is moving to consolidate power in its own hands under the guise of democratisation. The AK Party denies any intention to roll back secular traditions.
"These court cases are helping to make the political polarisation in Turkey lasting," said Ismet Berkan, a former editor of the liberal Radikal newspaper.
Media coverage of Ergenekon illustrates that polarisation, with the enthusiasm of pro-government media for the case matched by the scepticism of the press critical of Erdogan.
"The lack of a conclusion to Ergenekon, the continued detentions and arrests, is increasing the number of those who are uneasy about the case," Berkan said.
The main opposition CHP party says it shows the government is seeking to silence and cow opponents. There is little evidence yet that its stance is boosting CHP support.
Opinion polls indicate the AK Party will secure a clear victory for a third consecutive term in office.
"Some liberal circles have started to question the direction of the whole investigation but none of the mainstream parties represent a credible alternative to the AKP," Piccoli said.
Since the discovery of an explosives cache in a shanty-town house in Istanbul in June 2007, the Ergenekon case has spiralled to become the largest and most complex in Turkish history.
Investigators collected evidence linking alleged plotters, including military officers, lawyers, writers and various arch-nationalists to assassinations, terrorist attacks and bombings which have blighted Turkey's recent past.
Some 200 serving and retired military officers are also on trial accused of seeking to overthrow the government in a separate investigation dubbed "Sledgehammer".
Initial public enthusiasm for the Ergenekon case was fuelled by hopes that it would bring to account the "deep state" - clandestine groups believed to have carried out the state's dirty work, such as extra-judicial killings, in past decades.
The "deep state", a suspected alliance of senior members within the state apparatus, is believed to have roots in NATO's efforts early in the Cold War to create a resistance movement in member states to counter any Soviet invasion.
Public views of Ergenekon are now more confused at the sheer scale of the investigation, with indictments extending to thousands of pages and covering a mass of evidence, while fresh detentions continually broaden the scope of the case.
"The complete lack of transparency in critical trials such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer has begun to damage the public trust in justice ... and opinion may turn against those cases," said Yavuz Baydar, a columnist in Today's Zaman, a newspaper regarded as sympathetic to the government.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)