By Can Sezer and Ece Toksabay / Reuters
ISTANBUL: General Ilker Basbug, the former head of Turkey’s armed forces, said military discipline has helped him adapt to prison life, but he still cannot accept the idea that he stands accused of being the leader of a terrorist group.
Responding to questions relayed through his lawyer, the 68-year-old retired commander said his health was fine, morale good, and that he kept himself fit by regular exercise since being jailed in the top-security prison at Silivri, outside Istanbul, in early January.
Basbug is the most senior officer among hundreds of secularists charged with conspiring to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government because of its roots in political Islam.
“As (soldiers) we are trained for any distress and hardship, so there are no problems,” Basbug told Reuters though his lawyer after a prison visit.
What he says flabbergasts him is “the allegation that as an intermediary leader of Ergenekon terrorist organization I have infiltrated the Turkish Armed Forces”.
In 2007 police uncovered an alleged secret organization called Ergenekon, intent on toppling Ergodan’s government.
At the time the military was at political loggerheads with the ruling AK Party, which swept to power in 2002, over the nomination of Abdullah Gul for the presidency.
The military and judiciary were the bastions of secular state envisaged by the republic’s founder, soldier statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and generals and judges distrusted the AK Party leaders with an Islamist past.
While hundreds of people have been arrested in the Ergenekon probe, not just military officers but also journalists and academics, Basbug, who was chief of staff from 2008 until 2010, is easily the most shocking catch.
Aside from reading books, Basbug says he keeps abreast of the news and discusses the state of affairs with two fellow retired generals he shares a cell with. Aside from lawyers, he says he sees from family members, and has also been visited by a member of parliament for the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“There is TV here, I am with two other people, retired general Hursit Tolon and retired brigadier general Aleattin Sevim. We chat among ourselves,” he said.
The case against Basbug revolves around allegations that the military set up websites to spread “black propaganda” against the government.
The next hearing in his case will be held on March 22.
Basbug wants the case transferred to the Supreme Court, as befitting a state official of his seniority.
His lawyer, Ilkay Sezer, told Reuters the indictment against Basbug was filled with inconsistencies and lacked credibility, but he had little confidence in the court to release Basbug while he stands trial.
The risk that suspects might tamper with evidence if they are released has been used as the key justification for extended periods of detention, even in cases where the alleged crime took place several years before and the prosecutors have had time to build their case.
“There is no legal obstacle to releasing Basbug pending trial by the court – regardless of whether it hears the case itself or transfers it to Supreme Court – but I don’t think it’s highly probable,” Sezer said.
Initially the Ergenekon investigation was welcomed by people who wanted to see democracy flourish after the coups that punctuated the late 20th century.
But as the case went on and specially empowered state prosecutors failed to turn many detentions into convictions, the public opinion became split over whether Ergenekon even exists, or whether it has been used as a vehicle to silence dissent.