SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) – A shadowy right-wing group went on trial in Turkey on Monday on charges of trying to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Eighty-six people suspected of belonging to the group called Ergenekon, including retired army officers, politicians, lawyers and journalists, are accused of planning assassinations and bombings to sow chaos and force the military to step in.
The case has shed light on what many Turks have long believed are ultra-nationalists tied to the security forces and state apparatus willing to take the law into their own hands in the name of defending the secularist state.
The trial at the heavily-guarded Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul began in disarray on Monday as officials sought to seat several hundred people in a cramped court room.
“An imaginary group has been invented. I am accused of being a leader of this group but I don’t even know this group,” retired Capt. Muzaffer Tekin told the judges as he sat in court with fellow defendants, flanked by 20 police officers. “I see this as a political plot.”
Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the trial, waving Turkish flags and chanting: “The traitors are in parliament, the patriots are in prison.”
Protesters also carried billboards of two prominent retired four-star generals who are under arrest for alleged ties to the ultra-nationalist group, but are yet to be indicted.
The trial, which is expected to take months to complete, adjourned until October 23.
The case has caused concern in financial markets in Turkey, wary of renewed political tensions.
Some government opponents also see the controversial case as revenge for court moves earlier this year to outlaw the ruling AK Party. The party, which has roots in political Islam, has denied any link.
The AK Party narrowly averted closure by the Constitutional Court in July for Islamist activities and was instead fined for undermining the country’s secular principles.
The new case has highlighted the tensions between the AK Party and the secularist elite, who fear the government is seeking to introduce Islam into public life.
“This is the first time in world history such a comedy happens,” professor Kemal Alamdaroglu, a suspect in the trial, told reporters outside the court house. “What I had done as a rector were all in line with the constitution and laws. If I am accused it is because of that,” he added.
The indictment targets the Ergenekon group, which first came to light last year when a cache of explosives was discovered in a police raid on an Istanbul house. Of the 86 people on trial, only 46 are in custody.
The 2,500-page indictment’s charges include armed insurrection, membership and aiding a terror group. The prosecutor claims the group was behind the murder of a prominent judge and a bombing of a newspaper in 2006.
Turkish liberals hope the Ergenekon case will unearth the existence of a “deep state” in Turkey, code for hardline nationalists who are believed tied to numerous unsolved political murders and attacks over the past few decades.
Defendants who are on trial include retired brigadier general Veli Kucuk, Dogu Perincek, head of a small nationalist party, Ilhan Selcuk, and editor of nationalist, leftist Cumhuriyet — all government critics.
“We have our doubts about whether the court process will be just, we believe some of those behind the crimes have not been brought to justice,” Filiz Kilicgun, a lawyer taking part as observer at the trial, told Reuters.