Turkey on Monday detained 10 retired admirals after they openly criticized a canal project dear to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a country where the hint of military insubordination raises the specter of past coups, Agence France-Presse reported.
The official approval last month of plans to develop a 45-kilometer (28-mile) shipping lane in İstanbul comparable to the Panama or Suez canals has opened up debate about Turkey’s commitment to the 1936 Montreux Convention.
The pact is aimed at demilitarizing the Black Sea by setting strict commercial and naval rules on passage through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits leading to the Mediterranean.
In their letter, 104 retired admirals said the existing treaty “best protects Turkish interests.”
“Recently, the opening of the Montreux Convention to debate within the scope of the authority to withdraw from international treaties and the Canal Istanbul project is a cause for concern,” the letter read.
The Ankara chief public prosecutor’s office said arrest warrants had been issued for the 10 and ordered four other suspects to report to Ankara police within three days, opting not to detain them because of their age.
They are accused of “using force and violence to get rid of the constitutional order,” NTV reported.
Father of sea doctrine
The prosecutor’s office opened a probe on Sunday into the retired admirals on suspicion of an “agreement to commit a crime against the state’s security and constitutional order.”
The wording is similar to that prosecutors have used against other Erdoğan critics who have been jailed in a crackdown that followed a failed putsch in 2016.
The retired admirals detained on Monday included some of Turkey’s most famous naval commanders.
They included Cem Gürdeniz, often described as the father of Turkey’s controversial new maritime doctrine known as “Blue Homeland.”
The doctrine has grown in prominence, especially during tensions last year between Greece and Turkey over Ankara’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
It argues Turkey has rights to substantial maritime borders including the water surrounding some Greek islands, much to Athens’ chagrin.
Also detained was Alaettin Sevim, who had previously been arrested in 2011 as part of the so-called Ergenekon alleged coup plot against the government, which was later discredited.
Before the arrest warrants were issued, state news agency Anadolu said the prosecutor’s office had determined who the “leaders” were of the open letter.
Turkish officials have reacted angrily to the letter, claiming it appears to be a call for a coup.
“Stating one’s thoughts is one thing, preparing a declaration evoking a coup is another,” Parliament Speaker Mustafa Şentop said on Sunday.
Coups are a sensitive subject in Turkey since the military, which has long seen itself as the guarantor of the country’s secular constitution, staged three coups between 1960 and 1980.
The attempt to overthrow Erdoğan in 2016 was blamed on followers of US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen in the military despite a strong denial from Gülen of any involvement in the failed putsch.
“This is upsetting in the name of democracy,” Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said on Monday.
“Our struggle against this dark mentality continues. The necessary response will be given within a legal framework,” Gül added.
Erdoğan’s proposed 75 billion lira ($9.8 billion) alternative to the Bosporus and Dardanelles raises questions on whether existing agreements would apply to the new route.
Last month, Şentop said the president “could” withdraw from the convention.
“He has the power,” he told HaberTürk channel on March 24. “But there is a difference between possible and probable.”
Erdoğan was given the power to pull Turkey out of treaties without parliament’s approval in 2018.
Last month he withdrew Turkey from the world’s first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women.