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Turkey’s most important political trial in more than a decade starts near Istanbul today, amid hopes the country may finally be able to crush shadowy criminal groups that, for decades, have hobbled its democratic development.

Turkey’s most important political trial in more than a decade starts near Istanbul today, amid hopes the country may finally be able to crush shadowy criminal groups that, for decades, have hobbled its democratic development.

The 86 defendants, prominent secularists and right-wingers united only by their authoritarian ultra-nationalism, stand accused of attempting to remove the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan by force. The indictment against them, a 2,455-page door-stopper, reads like a Dan Brown novel.

Beginning with the discovery of 27 hand-grenades in the Istanbul home of a retired military officer last June, the prosecutors accumulated evidence linking the gang to assassinations stretching back more than 15 years.

The gang’s aim, they assert, was to use high-profile murders to stir up social tensions, easing the way for military intervention against a ruling party which has its roots in political Islam.

The accused – among them senior retired military officers, mafiosi and prominent academics and journalists – are alleged to have commissioned the murder of a High Court judge in April 2006. Originally blamed on Islamists, the killing triggered a secularist backlash against the government that culminated in a veiled coup threat last year and a court attempt to close the ruling AK Party this February.

The government narrowly escaped closure in July, but divisions over Islam remain deep. Debates about the gang the Turkish media has called Ergenekon reflect the polarisations.

For much of the pro-government media, Ergenekon is behind every act of terrorism in the past half-century. Many secularists dismiss the trial as a government-backed plot to neutralise its enemies. Who has heard of a coup attempt started with 27 grenades, they ask contemptuously.

Belma Akcura, an investigative journalist who has been following the Ergenekon investigations closely, is no fan of the Justice and Development (AKP) government. But she is critical of the secularist view. “Think of it like this”, she says. “The affair of the 27 grenades is like a kid caught stealing sweets from a shop. Questioned by the police, he turns out to be part of a group stealing sweets from every single shop in the whole of Turkey.”

In the past, it was the left-leaning secularists who were the ones who worked hardest to shed light on what Turks called the “Deep State”, paramilitary groups with links to the military, police and politicians – and possibly the CIA – that are believed to have been active in Turkey since the 1950s.

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