Turkey frees three detained in ‘coup’ probe

A Turkish prosecutor has released the three most senior commanders under investigation in connection with an alleged plan to overturn the government of the ruling AK party, easing fears their detention could trigger a political crisis.

Ibrahim Firtina, the former air force chief, Ozden Ornek, former naval chief, and Ergin Saygun, former first army commander, were freed on Thursday evening after questioning in connection with the so-called Sledgehammer documents, dating from 2003 and supposedly containing plans for a military coup.

More than 40 retired and active officers were detained on Monday. They included senior commanders who served in the first years of the AKP government.

The three released on Thursday may still face charges but were considered unlikely to escape or destroy evidence, Turkish media reported. Many officers remain in custody, and some have been charged with attempting to unseat the government.

The commanders’ release lessens the risk of an immediate escalation in tensions between the AKP and its opponents in the military and judiciary. The lira recovered and shares on Istanbul’s stock exchange gained 0.7 per cent on Friday, stemming their worst losing streak since Lehman Brothers’ collapse in October 2008.

The release of the retired commanders came just hours after President Abdullah Gul had sought to calm the situation on Thursday, saying after a meeting with the prime minister and chief of general staff that the issues would be solved within the constitutional and legal framework.

Murat Yetkin, a columnist in the newspaper Radikal, said the statement seemed meant to stress that the military would not act to pre-empt the result of the judicial process.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, also angrily denied the government could call early elections, saying such rumours were damaging the economy.

However, Mr Erdogan hinted the AKP was working on a constitutional reform package that could stir further controversy. Although the risk of an immediate crisis has faded, analysts say further volatility is inevitable, given the extent of institutional infighting and unresolved hostility between the AKP and its critics.

“The mistrust between the AKP government on one side and the higher judiciary and the military on the other has reached a level where it will be very difficult to muster sufficient motivation on either side to find a more lasting equilibrium,” said Christian Keller, economist at Barclays Capital. “There will be no return to the previous situation, where markets could largely discount domestic political risks”.

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