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Trial Of Alleged Antigovernment Plotters Opens In Turkey

Supporters of the nationalist group Ergenekon rally as the trial opens

Supporters of the nationalist group Ergenekon rally as the trial opens

SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) -- A shadowy right-wing group has gone on trial in Turkey on charges of trying to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government.

Eighty-six people, including retired army officers, politicians, lawyers and journalists, are accused of planning assassinations and bombings to sow chaos and force the military to step in.

The case has shed light on what many Turks have long believed are ultranationalists who have ties to the security forces and state apparatus and are willing to take the law into their own hands in the name of defending the secularist state.

The trial at the heavily-guarded Silivri prison on the outskirts of Istanbul is expected to take months to complete. It began in disarray on October 20 as officials sought to seat all the defendants and lawyers in the same court room.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the trial, waving Turkish flags and chanting: "The traitors are in parliament, the patriots are in prison."

Protesters also carried billboards of two prominent retired four-star generals who are under arrest for alleged ties to the ultranationalist group, but are yet to be indicted.

The case has caused concern in financial markets in Turkey, wary of renewed political tensions.

Some government opponents also see the controversial case as revenge for court moves earlier this year to outlaw the ruling AK Party. The AK Party, which has roots in political Islam, has denied any link.

The AK Party narrowly averted closure by the Constitutional Court in July for Islamist activities and was instead fined for undermining the country's secular principles.

Political 'Comedy'

The new case has highlighted the tensions between the AK Party and the secularist elite, including generals, judges, and professors, who fear the government is seeking to introduce Islam into public life.

"This is the first time in world history such a comedy has happened," professor Kemal Alamdaroglu, a suspect in the trial, told reporters outside the court house. "What I had done as a rector was in line with the constitution and laws. If I am accused it is because of that," he added.

The indictment targets an ultra-nationalist group called Ergenekon, which first came to light last year when a cache of explosives was discovered in a police raid on an Istanbul house.

Turkish liberals hope the Ergenekon case will unearth the existence of a "deep state" in Turkey, code for hard-line nationalists who are believed to be linked to numerous unsolved political murders and attacks over the past few decades.

Defendants who are on trial include Dogu Perincek, head of a small nationalist party; Ilhan Selcuk, editor of the nationalist, leftist newspaper "Cumhuriyet"; and retired Brigadier General Veli Kucuk -- all government critics.

"We have our doubts about whether the court process will be just; we believe some of those behind the crimes have not been brought to justice," Filiz Kilicgun, a lawyer taking part as an observer at the trial, told Reuters.