TURKEY’S former military chief has been sentenced to life in prison and dozens of others, including opposition members of parliament, have been given long jail terms for plotting against the government, in a trial that has exposed deep divisions in the country.
Retired chief of staff General Ilker Basbug was yesterday sentenced to life for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy to overthrow the government of prime minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Announcing verdicts on the nearly 300 defendants in the case, the judges also sentenced three serving parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to between 12 and 35 years in prison.
Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued killings and bombings in order to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces which Mr Erdogan says his Islamist-rooted AK Party has fought to stamp out.
Critics, including the main opposition party, say the charges were trumped up, aimed at stifling opposition and taming the secularist establishment which has long dominated Turkey. They say the judiciary has been subject to political influence.
The judges also gave life sentences to a former commander of the prestigious First Army, a retired gendarmerie commander, the leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party Doguerincek and high-profile journalist Tuncay Ozkan.
Six judges took it in turns to read the verdicts, sentencing defendants for membership of the “Ergenekon terrorist organisation”. Booing by defence lawyers, opposition politicians and some journalists in court turned to applause as half of the defence lawyers stormed out in protest at the sentences.
“We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers,” the defendants and defence lawyers chanted in reference to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular republic.
Earlier, security forces fired tear gas around the courthouse in the Silivri jail complex, west of Istanbul, as defendants’ supporters tried to protest against the five-year trial, a landmark case in the decade-long battle between Mr Erdogan and the secularist establishment.
“The day will come when the AKP will pay the price,” some chanted on the approach road to Silivri, where hundreds of riot police and paramilitary gendarmes were on duty.
“This is Erdogan’s trial, it is his theatre,” Umut Oran, an opposition MP with the CHP party, said. “In the 21st century, for a country that wants to become a full member of the European Union, this obvious political trial has no legal basis,” he said.
Mr Erdogan has denied interfering in the legal process, stressing the judiciary’s independence. But he has criticised the prosecutors and expressed disquiet at the length of time defendants have been held in custody.
Among the 275 defendants in the case were military officers, politicians, academics and journalists. They deny the charges. Twenty-one of the defendants were acquitted as the court announced verdicts one by one.
After the verdicts, Basbug wrote on Twitter: “If society questions the independence of judges in a country, if it harbours doubts about whether its judgments are lawful, you cannot claim there is supremacy of law in that country.”
The threat of a coup is not far-fetched: the military staged three coups in Turkey between 1960 and 1980 and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997. But Mr Erdogan has chipped away at the army’s influence since his party came to power in 2002.