A Turkish court yesterday sentenced a former military commander to life in prison and dozens of others, including opposition members of parliament, to long terms for plotting against the government, in a case that has exposed deep divisions in the country.
Retired military chief of staff general Ilker Basbug was sentenced to life for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy to overthrow the government of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Announcing verdicts on the nearly 300 defendants in the case, the judges also sentenced three serving lawmakers from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to between 12 and 35 years in prison.
Earlier, security forces fired tear gas in fields around the courthouse in the Silivri jail complex, west of Istanbul, as defendants’ supporters gathered to protest against the five-year trial, a landmark case in the decade-long battle between Erdogan and the secularist establishment.
Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued extra-judicial killings and bombings to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces that Erdogan says his Islamist-rooted AK Party has fought to stamp out.
Critics, including the main opposition party, have said the charges are trumped up, aimed at stifling opposition and taming the secularist establishment that has long dominated Turkey. They say the judiciary has been subject to political influence in hearing the case.
“This is Erdogan’s trial, it is his theater,” said Umut Oran, a parliamentarian with the opposition CHP party.
“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 at the courthouse.
Erdogan has denied interfering in the legal process, stressing the judiciary’s independence. However, he has criticized the prosecutors handling the case and expressed disquiet at the length of time defendants have been held in custody.
With main access roads shut and protesters’ buses prevented from reaching the area, hundreds of the defendants’ supporters attempted to cross fields to reach the court and prison complex, but police with riot shields blocked their advance.
“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 gendarmes, a paramilitary force responsible for rural security, were on duty.
Among the 275 defendants accused in the case are military officers, politicians, academics and journalists. They deny the charges. Twenty-one of the defendants were acquitted as the court continued to announce individual verdicts.
Basbug criticized the court on his Twitter account on Sunday, saying the public would not accept the punishment of innocent people.