Image: General Ilker Basbug, center, arrives at a courthouse in Istanbul on Thursday
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Gen. Ilker Basbug, center, arrives at a courthouse in Istanbul, Turkey, on Thursday. ""We can say it is really tragicomic to accuse somebody who commands such an army of forming and directing a terrorist group," he reportedly told the court. news services
updated 1/6/2012 3:37:31 AM ET 2012-01-06T08:37:31

A former military chief was jailed Friday, accused of leading a terrorist organization and plotting to bring down Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, his lawyer said.

Gen. Ilker Basbug was arrested and placed in a prison near Istanbul overnight after seven hours of questioning by prosecutors investigating allegations that the military funded dozens of websites aimed at discrediting the Islamic-rooted government in 2009.

Basbug, who retired in 2010, is the highest-ranking officer to face trial in the so-called Ergenekon case, a long-running crackdown on EU candidate Turkey's once all-powerful military and secularist establishment.

"The Republic of Turkey's 26th general chief of staff has been remanded in custody for forming and directing a terrorist group," Basbug said as he was lead from the courtroom. "I leave it to the great Turkish nation to judge."

Some of the suspects already charged in the case, including senior generals and admirals, have said they acted in a chain of command. Basbug led the military at the time.

Lawyer Ilkay Sezer said Basbug denied the accusations during questioning.

Turkey's military, NATO's second-largest army, has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country's secular constitution, and had staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured another government from power in 1997.

"We can say it is really tragicomic to accuse somebody who commands such an army of forming and directing a terrorist group," broadcaster NTV quoted Basbug as telling the court on Thursday.

The jailing of a former military chief — unimaginable a few years back — comes as the government, which has won three successive elections, has sharply reduced the political clout of the military.

The decision to send Basbug to jail came hours after prominent Turkish journalists on trial over alleged ties to the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon network said the charges against them were politically motivated and "a massacre of justice" in a case that has raised concerns over media freedom in Turkey.

The Ergenekon case is seen as part of a power struggle between Erdogan's ruling AK party, which has roots in a banned Islamist party and swept to power in 2002, and an old secularist establishment including military officers, lawyers, journalists and politicians.

Investigations into Ergenekon have spiraled since they first opened in 2007, and critics accuse Erdogan's government of scaremongering to silence opponents. The government denies any such motives.

The alleged conspiracy was first reported by a Turkish newspaper in 2009, which printed a photocopy of an alleged plan to damage the reputation of the government by portraying it as corrupt. Investigations into the reported conspiracy were inconclusive because the original document, allegedly signed by a navy colonel, could not be found. The probe was revived last year after an unidentified military officer allegedly sent the original document to Istanbul's chief prosecutor.

Hundreds of people, including civilians, retired generals and active-duty officers, are already on trial accused of being part of plots that prosecutors say were aimed at destabilizing Turkey and bringing the government down. The military says 58 serving generals or admirals are in jail.

Nicknamed pashas, a title dating back to Ottoman times, Turkey's once untouchable generals have seen their influence decline as Ankara pushes reforms aimed at strengthening civilian rule and winning Turkey's accession to the European Union.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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