Marking a first in the history of the Republic of Turkey, former chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ testified to prosecutors on Thursday as a suspect as part of a probe into propaganda websites that were allegedly set up by the military to undermine the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.
Over the past years, Turkey has become used to seeing the prosecution of former generals who were deemed untouchable in the past, mainly in coup cases, but Başbuğ has been the highest-ranking military member to be investigated although he is retired.
The İstanbul Specially Authorized Prosecutor's Office on Jan. 3 summoned Başbuğ to testify as a suspect on Jan. 5 as part of a probe into allegations that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had set up websites to disseminate anti-government propaganda. Başbuğ complied with the call and came to Beşiktaş Courthouse on Thursday afternoon.
Tight security measures were taken around the courthouse before Başbuğ's arrival. İstanbul Specially Authorized Prosecutor Cihan Kansız and Deputy İstanbul Chief Prosecutor Fikret Seçen interrogated the former military chief.
Başbuğ was referred to a court for arrest Thursday night for his key role he prepared in the establishment of the anti-government websites. He was later arrested by the 12th İstanbul High Criminal Court in early hours of Friday. An investigation into the former army chief was launched by the İstanbul Prosecutor's Office on Jan. 2.
Most of the suspects, such as former 1st Army Commander retired Gen. Hasan Iğsız, Lt. Gen. Mehmet Eröz and Capt. Murat Uslukılıç, in the propaganda websites case told prosecutors in their interrogations that Başbuğ was in the know about the alleged Internet campaign conducted by the military to undermine the AK Party government.
Twenty-two military officers, seven of whom are generals accused of “attempting to overthrow the government,” are currently on trial as part of the investigation into the anti-government websites.
According to claims, the Action Plan to Fight Reactionaryism, a suspected military plot to discredit the governing AK Party and the faith-based Gülen movement, was posted on a number of websites that are believed to have been set up by the General Staff to support TSK propaganda campaigns against civilian groups and the government.
The two cases, the propaganda websites case and the Action Plan to Fight Reactionaryism case, were merged in August by the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court. The content of the websites indicates they were used as part of the action plan.
The investigation into the propaganda websites began in 2010 based on evidence found in the home of retired Col. Hasan Ataman Yıldırım, another suspect in the website case. Later, an anonymous tipster from inside the military sent an email to inform the public and prosecutors that the General Staff had established 42 websites for the sole purpose of disseminating propaganda about the government and religious communities.
During his tenure, contrary to the principles of a democratic state, Başbuğ constantly made statements to the media as if he were a politician and denied charges directed at the TSK in the wake of dozens of military plots, including plans to trigger chaos in the country to facilitate a military takeover.
When he first assumed the post in 2008, Başbuğ said: “I will speak less; I will talk about the things that need explanation on relevant platforms. You will not get statements from me frequently.” However, he did not act in line with his remarks and caused new controversies with nearly all of his statements.
Just after assuming his post, Başbuğ sent an envoy to Kandıra Prison to meet with two suspects in the Ergenekon terrorist organization case, retired Gen. Şener Eruygur and retired Gen. Hurşit Tolon, who had been under arrest for alleged involvement in Ergenekon, which is accused of orchestrating various murders and attacks with the intention of creating chaos that would trigger a coup.
“This visit paid to two retired generals who had served in the TSK for a long time was made on behalf of the TSK,” said a statement on the General Staff’s website. In 2008, he spoke against the media for publishing classified information revealing that the army had known in advance about a deadly attack on the Aktütün outpost on Oct. 3, which left 17 soldiers dead.
Başbuğ’s tone of voice and style of speech, which were accompanied by angry gestures and finger-pointing, as if he were reprimanding the reporters, back then led everyone to question whether a general speaking this way is compatible with the spirit of a democratic regime. In addition, Başbuğ’s failure to respond to the allegations and instead threatening media outlets that covered the news, raised suspicions over whether Başbuğ was trying to cover up the military’s shortcomings by hitting back.
In another controversial statement in 2009, he referred to the Action Plan to Fight Reactionaryism as a “piece of paper” in a move aiming to downplay the plot and the discovery of light anti-tank weapons found hidden underground in İstanbul’s Poyrazköy district -- stored by the coup plotters for future use, the prosecution says -- as “pipes.”
Regarding the Sledgehammer coup plot, which included plans to bomb mosques in İstanbul and was revealed by the Taraf daily in early 2010, Başbuğ lashed out at those who exposed the plot and denounced the allegations directed at the TSK. “How on earth could the TSK plan to bomb mosques? This is unjust. The TSK has limits to its patience. I denounce these claims,” he said.
In February 2010, in a voice recording Başbuğ said he was the one who gave permission for civilian prosecutors to search the facilities of the Tactical Mobilization Unit in Ankara as part of an investigation into an alleged plot by military officers to assassinate Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç. “Can they search if you don’t let them? … What are they going to do if you tell them they can’t enter there? That’s not going to happen. That can’t happen; they couldn’t have entered.” The challenging and controversial remarks of the army chief made him a target of criticism back then, with increasing calls for his dismissal.