ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish authorities detained at least 21 ultra-nationalists, including two prominent retired generals, on Tuesday in a widening police investigation into a suspected coup plot against the government.
Police swooped shortly before the Constitutional Court began hearing a legal case in which the governing AK Party is charged with trying to establish an Islamic state and could be closed, a move that might lead to an early parliamentary election.
Turkish stocks fell six percent and the lira currency almost two percent on concerns of prolonged political uncertainty which political analysts say could damage Ankara’s hopes of joining the European Union.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the detentions were linked to a long-running probe into Ergenekon, a shadowy, ultra-nationalist and hardline secularist group suspected of planning bombings and assassinations calculated to trigger an army takeover.
“It is not the AK Party which they cannot tolerate. What they can’t tolerate is democracy, the national will, the people’s feelings and thoughts,” Erdogan said.
Ankara police said 24 people had been detained, but later the prosecutor’s office told state news agency Anatolian that 21 were in detention and three more were being sought.
Anatolian said among those detained were prominent retired generals Hursit Tolon and Sener Eruygur, the former chief of gendarmerie forces and head of a powerful secularist association.
The Milliyet daily said on its Web site a retired brigadier general and a retired vice-admiral had also been detained.
“These are prominent people and their common point is their loyalty to secularism. The (government) wants to turn society into an empire of fear,” Mustafa Ozyurek, a senior lawmaker in the main opposition party CHP, told broadcaster NTV.
Ankara Chamber of Commerce chairman Sinan Aygun and Ankara representative of Cumhuriyet newspaper were also detained.
Turkey, while predominantly Muslim, has a secular constitution, and the military considers itself the ultimate guardian of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It remains at odds with the AK Party over the role of religion in public life, an issue which has polarised Turkey for decades.
Turkey has had four military coups in the last 50 years, only two involving armed force. The most recent was a 1997 ‘soft coup’, when the generals edged from power a government it considered islamist using a combination of public and behind-the-scenes pressure.
Political analysts say Ergenekon is part of the shadowy “deep state”, code for hardline nationalists in Turkey’s security forces and state bureaucracy who are ready to take the law into their own hands for the sake of their own agenda.
More than 40 people, including a retired general, lawyers and politicians have been arrested over the past year for suspected links to Ergenekon. The military, which has repeatedly criticised the government, has denied any links to the group.
No formal charges have been brought against them but Anatolian news agency reported judicial sources as saying an indictment should be ready by the end of the week.
Half of those detained on Tuesday were members of the powerful Kemalist Thought Association (ADD), a group promoting the principles of modern Turkey’s founder, Hurriyet daily said. ADD helped push millions of Turks onto the streets to protest against the election of former foreign minister Abdullah Gul as president last year, sparking an early parliamentary election.
“We have nothing to do with illegal activities,” ADD deputy chairman Ali Ercan told Reuters.
The secularist establishment, including army generals and judges, suspects the AK Party of harbouring a hidden Islamist agenda. The party, which embraces nationalists, market liberals and centre-right politicians as well as religious conservatives, denies the accusations.
Shortly after the detentions, Turkey’s chief prosecutor outlined his case in the Constitutional Court to close the AK Party, which was re-elected only last year.
The prosecutor also wants to ban 71 political figures, including Erdogan, from party politics for five years for seeking to turn officially secular, but predominantly Muslim, Turkey into an Islamic state.
The AK Party denies the charges and says they are politically motivated. A ruling could come as early as August.
Turkish courts have banned more than 20 parties for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities. A predecessor to the AK Party was banned in 2001.
If the AK Party is closed and Erdogan removed from power, analysts expect an early parliamentary election will follow.
Political analysts say the likelihood of the AK Party being closed down has increased since the Constitutional Court last month overturned a government-led move to allow students to wear the Islamic headscarf at university.
“Is this a coincidence that the (police) operation on our offices comes at the same time as the oral statement by the chief prosecutor?” asked Cumhuriyet columnist Cuneyt Arcayurek.
The court case reflects a power struggle between two rival elites as much as a decades-old differences in opinion over whether restrictions on practising Islam should be eased.