ANKARA: Ten of Turkey’s most prominent former navy chiefs were arrested on Monday and accused of plotting a coup after they publicly criticized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitious Istanbul canal project.
The 10 men detained were among 104 retired admirals who published a letter on Sunday urging Erdogan to abide by the terms of the Montreux Convention, a 1936 treaty aimed at demilitarizing the Black Sea by setting strict rules on warships’ passage through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.
The president’s plan to build a 45-kilometre canal to the west of the Bosphorus leaves open the question of whether the old treaty will apply to the proposed new waterway. The former navy chiefs said the treaty “best protects Turkish interests.”
Erdogan told them on Monday: “The duty of retired admirals is not to publish declarations that hint at a political coup. In a country whose past is filled with coups, another attempt by a group of retired admirals can never be accepted.”
The Ankara chief prosecutor has accused the retired admirals of “using force and violence to get rid of the constitutional order” — the same wording used against Erdogan critics jailed in a crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016.
Among those arrested was Cem Gurdeniz, regarded as a military hero in Turkey and one of the proponents of the country’s contested “Blue Homeland” maritime defense concept.
A group of former members of parliament on Monday urged Erdogan to maintain the 1936 treaty, which they said was strategically important for Turkey’s maritime security and sovereignty. “The core tenets of our republic cannot be discussed. Montreux can’t be opened for debate,” they said.
They also condemned the detention of the retired admirals for criticizing Erdogan’s canal plan, and warned: “We remind the government that we are still a state of law.”
Rich Outzen, a senior US Army adviser and member of the State Department policy planning staff, said he was dismayed by the crackdown. “I have no doubt most of the signers oppose the canal project on principled grounds and are sincerely concerned about Turkey’s Montreux convention rights,” he said.
“On the other hand, publishing a policy challenge as a group … rather than as individual commentators or members of political opposition parties raises some very bad memories in Turkey’s collective consciousness.
“If their goal was to strengthen the incumbent government by raising the specter of old coups and coup attempts, the AKP is exceptionally agile in moments like this.”
Opposition politicians believe the latest declarations will give Turkey’s government an excuse to criminalize anyone who opposes the Istanbul canal project.
“The retired admirals have offered the government an opportunity on a gold platter,” said Ali Babacan, leader of the breakaway DEVA Party.
“The government will use it to polarize those who don’t want the canal project and brand them as siding with the conspirators.”
The new row will add to the concerns of European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen before their meeting with Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday. The talks are widely viewed as an attempt to repair strained relations between Turkey and the bloc.
An EU official said that the success of the talks depended on the Turkish president. “If Erdogan does not show himself to be cooperative then everything will be blocked,” the official said.