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Turkish officials indict dozens in alleged coup plot

Times Staff Writer

In an explosive case that reflects political turmoil fueled by this country’s religious-secular divide, Turkish prosecutors on Monday brought charges against 86 people for allegedly trying to overthrow the government.

Istanbul’s chief prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, said a group that included retired military officials, academics, lawyers and writers stood accused of forming a shadowy ultranationalist network whose aim was to drive the Islamist-rooted ruling party from power.

The full list of suspects was not immediately released, but the accused, 48 of whom are in custody, face mainly terrorism-related charges that include membership in an illegal organization, authorities said.

Engin refrained from immediately unveiling the indictment, which reportedly runs nearly 2,500 pages and contains a wealth of information about the alleged coup plot. It is to be made public soon.

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But speaking to reporters, the prosecutor provided broad outlines of the case, centering on a group called Ergenekon, named for a myth-shrouded valley that is believed by some nationalists to be the wellspring of Turkic civilization.

The organization’s intent, in brief, was “destroying state authority,” Engin said.

Authorities said the alleged plot hinged on triggering a military coup or an armed revolt that would topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party last summer won reelection by a resounding margin.

Separately, and somewhat contradictorily, Turkey’s Constitutional Court in Ankara has also taken up a case, this one seeking to ban Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party and dozens of its senior members from politics for purportedly promoting an Islamist agenda that flies in the face of the secular constitution. A ruling in that case is expected this summer.

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The political paralysis arising from the attempt to ban the ruling party has hammered Turkey’s formerly robust economy and damaged its already faltering bid to join the European Union.

In the case of the coup suspects, a court has two weeks to decide whether to try them. Engin told reporters that the indictment would lay out the plans for a potentially violent overthrow and detail the group’s possession of weapons.

The case came to light after police found an arms cache, consisting mainly of hand grenades, at the home of a retired military man last year, according to authorities.

The religious-secular struggle has for years been a theme in Turkish politics, but it came to full boil last summer when the ruling party, known in Turkey as AKP, insisted on choosing one of its own, Abdullah Gul, as president. The presidency had traditionally been considered something of a secular birthright, with the position having first been held by Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk, who enshrined the republic’s secular principles in law.

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Since last summer’s elections, battle lines have been drawn between secularists, who gain support from the military, the judicial establishment, academia and some influential trade groups, and the AKP’s more religiously observant loyalists.

Secularists reacted with fury when the government, despite denying any Islamist agenda, sought this year to lift a ban on Islamic head scarves in universities. In the republic’s early days, Ataturk had decreed that religious dress should not be allowed in government buildings and other official settings.

Erdogan and Gul both have wives and daughters who wear head scarves as a sign of piety.

The conspiracy case is also roiling the powerful military, which has been preoccupied with a months-long campaign against Kurdish separatists that has included forays into northern Iraq. Turkish news reports said military prosecutors had requested access to the indictment, a move interpreted to mean the army was conducting a parallel internal investigation of the coup plot.

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More charges are being prepared in the case, Engin said -- probably including two retired senior generals who were arrested this month but were not among those charged Monday.

Also still under investigation are the reported “coup diaries” of an army general published by a Turkish magazine last year.

--

laura.king@latimes.com

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