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Spying Order From Turkish Generals Sparks Wide Protest

Lawmakers and rights groups decry the move to keep tabs on civilians. Measure, publicized by a newspaper, also targets backers of EU and U.S.

March 12, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — The country's powerful generals have ordered local officials to spy on individuals, a move seen as the latest step by the military to continue its watchdog role over civilian life.

The Land Forces Command demanded information on terrorist groups, but military leaders said officials should also monitor a host of unlikely troublemakers such as "pro-European Union and pro-Americans, rich kids, ethnic minorities, Satanists, magicians and people who practice meditation," according to a document published this week by the daily newspaper Hurriyet.

The document, circulated to Interior Ministry officials in January, has sparked a storm of protest from lawmakers and rights groups, who accuse the military of breaching the constitution. It has also created unease among Turkey's allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and raised fresh questions as to whether the military supports this predominantly Muslim nation's push to become a full member of the European Union.

The controversy grew Wednesday, when the Turkish general staff confirmed the accuracy of the reports about the document.

In a statement, the military said it had asked authorities to "gather intelligence because it was necessary to make plans to take effective measures against incidents that could arise." The statement also said the order would be reexamined, but gave no details.

Self-appointed custodians of the secular republic founded by soldier-turned-statesman Kemal Ataturk 81 years ago, the military has seized power three times since 1960. In 1997, it pushed out Turkey's first Islamist-led government on thinly supported charges that the latter was seeking to impose religious rule.

EU leaders say the role of the generals in domestic politics needs to be drastically curbed before Turkey can join the 15-nation bloc.

"This incident reveals once again that the military views itself as the sole protector of the state and apparently most Turkish citizens as its enemies," said a senior EU diplomat, who requested anonymity.

A U.S. official said he was "perplexed that the Turkish military would seek information about those who support the United States, which is a close ally of Turkey."

Mehmet Altan, spokesman for a pro-EU lobby group based in Istanbul, termed the military's measure "criminal" and called for legal action against the generals.

In a surprise move, the main opposition pro-secular Republican People's Party, known for its close links to the military, has demanded a parliamentary inquiry.

Since coming to power in November 2002, the government, which is led by an Islamist party, has already taken some steps to dilute the influence of the National Security Council, where top generals have long dictated national and foreign policy. Unlike its Western counterparts, the Turkish military does not take orders from civilian authorities.

Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said he had no knowledge of the document.

Some analysts here say the document, reportedly leaked by intelligence sources in the Turkish police, exposes the degree of anti-Western sentiment among nationalists in the military.

Tensions between the U.S. and the military have simmered since Turkey's parliament prevented U.S. troops from using the country as a staging area in the war that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Hostility toward the U.S. has sharpened recently amid fears that Washington is secretly encouraging establishment of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state that would fan separatist passions among Turkey's own restive Kurdish population.

Last week, top generals, including Land Forces commander Aytac Yalman, were among those who applauded a Turkish academic's call to cut ties with "imperialist America and the EU" and instead forge alliances with Russia and China.

Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, the mild-mannered chief of general staff, is seen as a countervailing force to such hawks.

Ozkok's moderate stance has been sharply criticized by military hard-liners, who accuse their boss of being too soft on the country's Islamist-rooted government. Analysts say he was probably unaware of the leaked directive. Others point out that, until recently, no Turkish newspaper would have had the courage to print it on its front page.

"The key question now," said the European diplomat, "is whether the fact of its being publicized will change anything. The military's statement rather suggests that it won't."

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