A Turkish criminal court on Tuesday began the trial of 33 retired and active naval officers accused of attempting to overthrow the government and establish military rule. The accused are before the Istanbul 12th High Criminal Court for their connection to a group called Ergenekon [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive], which allegedly planned to assassinate prominent members of Turkey's Christian and Jewish minority groups, blame Islamic terrorists for the deaths and use this to delegitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) [party website]. Prosecutors in the case will attempt to link [BBC report] the 33 defendants to a plan to detonate a bomb in an Istanbul museum and the deaths of a Catholic priest, Protestant missionaries and journalist Hrant Dink. Dink was the editor-in-chief of the Armenian daily Agos [media website, in Turkish], which the court announced as a party [Hurriyet report] to the case Tuesday. The defense has argued that the court lacks jurisdiction, requiring the case to be transferred to a military court. If convicted, the defendants could face sentences ranging between seven-and-a-half and 15 years in prison. The investigation has strained relations between the religiously-inclined government and the secular military, which has been responsible for four coups in the last fifty years. Since the founding of the modern republic in 1923, the military has regarded itself as the defender [Guardian report] of the secular legacy of founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [Turkish News profile].
In March, the Turkish government indicted the 33 defendants [JURIST report] on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and establish military rule. Earlier that week, Turkish police detained 20 people [JURIST report] in connection with the Ergenekon plot. Turkish prosecutors recently charged [JURIST report] an army general and a state prosecutor with belonging to Ergenekon and plotting to overthrow the AKP. In February, more than 40 military officers were arrested and charged in a separate coup attempt [JURIST report], the so-called Sledgehammer plot [Al Jazeera backgrounder], to provoke a military confrontation with Greece and take advantage of the ensuing chaos. The Ergenekon investigation has been criticized as an attempt by the AKP to silence the opposition and impose Islamic principles [JURIST report] on secular Turkey. Trials against the Ergenekon group started [JURIST report] two years ago and nearly 200 people have been charged in connection with it. The prosecution of military officials comes amid a larger effort by the AKP to reform the Turkish legal system as a step toward EU accession [materials; CFR backgrounder]. Last month, Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party [party website, in Turkish] filed suit [JURIST report] in the country's Constitutional Court [official website, in Turkish] in an effort to halt proposed constitutional amendments that would reform the judiciary allowing military and government officials to be tried in civilian court.