A Turkish court sentenced a former military chief and 18 other people to life in prison on Monday, concluding a landmark case that has divided the nation and come to symbolize the conflict between the Islamist-rooted government and the secularist-dominated opposition.
Ilker Basbug, the 70-year-old head of Turkey’s armed forces until 2010, was among those given a life sentence along with 13 other military officers, a soldier, a journalist, a lawyer, a politician and an ex-publisher for plotting to overthrow the government. Of the 275 defendants, all of whom said they were innocent, all but 17 were convicted.
Prosecutors argued that the defendants were members of a network of secularists, nationalists and military officials that plotted extrajudicial killings and bombings in a bid to trigger a military coup. The prosecutors said the group—allegedly code named “Ergenekon” after a mythical valley revered by nationalists—represented antidemocratic forces that the prime minister has fought to eradicate.
Government critics, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party, have characterized the trial as a witch hunt against the secularists who dominated Turkish politics until Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his rule in 2003.
The trial’s end comes during a period of deep political divisions in Turkey. In June, the country was roiled by nationwide antigovernment protests in which millions of people vented their frustration against what they said was Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic style of governance.
Mr. Erdogan has cast the opposition as representatives of an old order that for decades persecuted Turkey’s pious majority.
The case originated with the discovery of a cache of arms in an Istanbul suburb in 2007 and expanded into a broader case combining 23 separate indictments and four million pages of documents. The case once enjoyed broad-based support, but in recent years it has divided the country and caused splits in the conservative coalition that has helped Mr. Erdogan cement his power over the past decade. The European Commission has also expressed concern.
Prosecutors scored another victory in September, when another court in Istanbul found more than 300 former and active military officers guilty in a separate coup-plot case known as Balyoz, or Sledgehammer. The decision was hailed by the government’s allies as a step toward more democracy, while defendants and their supporters said it proved the judiciary was biased.
Some observers said the latest case raises the prospect of politically motivated trials in the months ahead as Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party seeks to stifle opposition after the still lingering June protests.
“The fear is that these types of trials could continue,” said Wolfango Piccoli, Director at Teneo Intelligence, a New-York based political risk consultancy. “The government’s control of institutions is now more complete and the independent media is weaker, so we may see the government go after other actors connected to the opposition.”
Mr. Basbug, in a statement, questioned the judiciary’s independence. “If in a country, the people are questioning the independence of judges, if people have doubts about the legality of the court rulings, then the rule of law cannot be claimed in that country,” the statement said.
Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the public should abide by the court’s decision, irrespective of whether they agreed with the ruling. The general staff couldn’t be reached for comment.
The atmosphere was tense in the courtroom as the verdicts were read out, with supporters of defendants sporadically shouting, banging chairs or chanting secularist slogans.
Outside, thousands of protesters gathered at the specially constructed Silivri courtroom complex, west of Istanbul, which had been fortified by police barricades. Battalions of hundreds of riot and military police stood guard and helicopters hovered above. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters.
“This trial was run with fake documents, fake evidence and secret undisclosed witnesses,” said Ismail Aydogmus, a 57-year-old writer from Istanbul who had come to protest at Silivri. “The security precautions are taking place because the court is afraid of the verdict.”
Defendants’ families gathered at the courthouse said the case showed the authorities were pursuing a vendetta against the political opposition.
“This is not democracy. It’s cruelty. Our parents are devastated but they also proud because we know my brother is innocent,” said Fidan Cavdar Balbay, the sister of journalist Mustafa Balbay, who was sentenced to nearly 35 years in prison.
The government has denied the opposition’s allegations that it interfered in the legal process, saying that the judiciary is independent.
In recent months, Mr. Erdogan has signaled unease over the case as prosecutors pushed for harsher sentences, imprisoned suspects and widened the case. He said he worried it could hurt military morale at a time of insecurity on Turkey’s borders, with Syria’s war raging next door.
Some observers said that the prosecution went further than Mr. Erdogan had hoped and could frustrate his efforts to end a three-decade Kurdish insurgency and to push through a constitutional overhaul to create a strong presidency that he could potentially occupy to extend his rule.
Outside the courthouse on Monday, some demonstrators said they had been interrogated en route to the courthouse and were forced to lie to police to pass check points.
“I came all the way from Ankara. This is usually a five- to six-hour drive but it took us 10 hours because we were stopped several times on the road. Our driver was interrogated by police. We said we were going for a holiday in Canakkale,” said Hayati Atac, a 65-year-old shopkeeper who arrived in a bus with 40 people.
Photo:Former General Ilker Basbug, the 70-year-old head of Turkey’s armed forces until 2010, was among those given a life sentence along with 13 other military officers, a soldier, a journalist, a lawyer, a politician and an ex-publisher for plotting to overthrow the government