SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) - Two former heads of Turkey’s armed forces were called as witnesses on Friday in the trial over an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government in 2003, starkly demonstrating the battered image of a once all-powerful top brass.
While the generals’ influence has waned dramatically over several years, the summoning of two ex-chiefs of staff from NATO’s second largest army to give evidence on the same day was unprecedented.
The staunchly secularist military launched three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured an Islamist-led government to quit in 1997.
But in recent years Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party has Islamist roots, succeeded in taming the generals through democratic reforms, while prosecutors pursued suspected coup makers through the courts.
General Yasar Buyukanit, head of the armed forces between 2006-2008, and his successor General Ilker Basbug, who held the role until 2010, were called to testify in the Sledgehammer case, which revolves around a military seminar that prosecutors say contained plans to oust the government.
Military commanders are accused of trying to destabilise the government with plans to bomb mosques and trigger conflict with Greece. Officers say evidence against them has been fabricated and that allegations of a coup plot arose from a war game exercise.
Several hundred defendants sat, penned in a central section of the specially built courtroom, next to a top security prison in Silivri, near Istanbul. Many waved to friends and family, and chatted across the rail during breaks.
Buyukanit, 72, cut a portly figure in a dark suit, and appeared unwell, as his hand shook while answering and at times he appeared to either misunderstand or not hear questions.
He was very clear, however, that he was unaware of any plan for a coup. “I did not hear of any such thing,” he told the bench of four judges.
Though Basbug had been called as a witness on Friday it was unclear whether his cross-examination would take place or be held over for another day.
While neither generals are defendants in the Sledgehammer case, Basbug was placed in detention in January on accusations that he was the leader of an alleged anti-government terrorist group, called Ergenekon.
Hundreds of other defendants, including military officers, lawyers, academics and journalists, face separate charges over allegations of links to the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network. Many of them are being held at Silivri prison.
Some 365 people are being tried in the Sledgehammer case alone, 249 of whom are being held in jail. Among the prominent commanders on trial are the former head of the prestigious First Army, retired General Cetin Dogan.
Both Basbug and Buyukanit were generals at the time of the Sledgehammer seminar and were called as witnesses as their signatures were on documents related to the seminar. The head of Turkey’s gendarmerie paramilitary force, General Bekir Kalyoncu, was also in court as a witness for the same reason.
The separate case against Basbug, whose next hearing is scheduled for March 22, revolves around websites set up by the military to spread “black propaganda” against the government.
Writing by Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Alison Williams