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Last Updated: Monday, 4 February 2008, 11:41 GMT
'Deep state plot' grips Turkey
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. File photo
Writer Orhan Pamuk was reportedly on the gang's assassination list

It is a story that has set Turkey abuzz with rumour and speculation.

At its heart is an ultra-nationalist gang known as Ergenekon, exposed when 33 of its alleged members were seized in a police raid in late January.

The claims widely reported in the Turkish press ever since read like a thriller.

They allege the gang was plotting to bring down the government.

It is claimed their plan was to assassinate a string of Turkish intellectuals, including Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, fomenting chaos and provoking a military intervention in 2009.

When the Cold War ended those structures [illicit paramilitary gangs] went out of business, but they still existed
Cengiz Candar
Turkish newspaper columnist

A "menu" of targets had already been drawn up and a hitman hired when the police swooped, according to the daily Hurriyet.

Sabah newspaper linked the gang to the recent murder of three Protestant Christians and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Those details - apparently leaked by police - have never been officially confirmed.

The lawyers of several of the accused told the BBC only that their clients have been charged under Article 313 of the penal code for inciting armed revolt against the government.

Those still detained include retired Brig Gen Veli Kucuk, an alleged mafia boss and an ultra-nationalist lawyer who provoked numerous prosecutions against prominent Turkish writers and intellectuals - including Mr Pamuk - for "insulting Turkishness".

'Deep state'

A brief statement at the outset linked the arrests to a raid in Istanbul last June. A large cache of hand grenades and explosives was discovered; then and a number of former military personnel detained.

The Turkish military is not a criminal organisation
Gen Buyukanit
Turkish army chief-of-staff

There have been no further formal statements about the gang, or their plot. But that has not stopped the Ergenekon affair making top "news" for almost two weeks.

From the start, this operation has been portrayed as a blow against the "deep state" - which explains the excitement.

It is a term widely used to describe renegade members of the security forces said to act outside the law in what they judge to be Turkey's best interests.

The phenomenon, much-discussed but never proven, is said to stretch back to Cold War times, when illicit paramilitary gangs were supposedly set up in collaboration with Western intelligence agencies to prevent the spread of communism.

"When the Cold War ended those structures went out of business, but they still existed," claims newspaper columnist Cengiz Candar, who has no doubt a "deep state" exists.

"Then the threat changed. The target became Kurdish insurgents or Asala," an Armenian militant organisation that targeted Turkish diplomats, he says.

For ultra-nationalists today the threats to Turkey include EU accession, Armenian genocide allegations and any talk of a peace deal to end the 24-year-old Kurdish insurgency.

'Under watch'

In 1996, many Turks' suspicions of a "deep state" were confirmed when a car crashed in the town of Susurluk. Inside were a senior police chief, a prominent politician and a wanted assassin.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. File photo
Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to "get rid" of the gangs

"Susurluk revealed weird connections between state officials and those who operate outside the limits of the law. It happened at a time when we had a lot of extra-judicial killings in Turkey," Mr Candar explains.

"But the investigation stopped just as there was speculation it was reaching very sensitive spots, even the military establishment. That only confirmed the existence of these networks in the public consciousness."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly has his own suspicions.

He used the same "deep state" terminology to describe the police operation against Ergenekon.

"These gangs are not new in our country. Our aim is to get rid of them. We see gangs in the most important institutions. People who once worked in these institutions join these organisations," Sabah quoted Mr Erdogan saying, immediately after the initial arrests.

Praising the police raids, he added: "There is a deep Turkey working against the deep state. This prevents them [the gangs] being as active as they once were."

If the prime minister has proof linking Ergenekon members to active security officials, it has yet to be revealed.

"I think the government moved now to dirty these peoples' names and reputations. It's a warning that they're under watch," believes Irfan Bozan, who is following the story for the privately-owned NTV 24-hour news channel.

Army rebuttal

Mr Bozan also raises the possibility the operation is part of a continuing power struggle between a government led by devout Muslims and a staunchly secular military.

Turkish soldiers. File photo
The army sees itself as a defender of Turkey's secularism

"At first it does look like an attempt to crack down on the deep state at last. But this is not a real challenge to those forces. This is an attack on those who are anti-government," Mr Bozan suggests.

Still, the chief-of-staff of Turkey's army was concerned enough by the suggestion the military might be tied to Ergenekon to issue a public rebuttal.

"The Turkish military is not a criminal organisation," Gen Buyukanit told journalists last week, apparently washing his hands of the accused.

"Military members who commit crimes are punished by the courts. It is wrong to try to link such incidents to the military as a whole," he said.

As the prosecutors gather their evidence the country is gripped, awaiting the next revelation, the next headline and the denouement.

After years of "deep state" rumours, many see the Ergenekon case as a real test of the government's will to dig deep and expose any ties between illicit gangs and the state. If they do really exist.

Turkey faces testing year ahead
02 Jan 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
04 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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