ANTAKYA, Turkey--Turkey’s former military chief was sentenced to life in prison on Monday, convicted along with many others of trying to overthrow the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Retired Gen. Ilker Basbug was the highest profile person among the 275 defendants, which included other military officers, politicians, academics and journalists, Turkish media reported.
The trial, which has gone on for five years, was seen as a battleground case in the conflict between Erdogan’s Islamist political party and Turkey's secularist establishment.
Prosecutors accused the defendants of being secular, ultra-nationalist members of a group code-named Ergenekon, who committed political assassinations and bomb attacks to create chaos and trigger a military coup against Erdogan. Turkey has a history of military coups.
In September, more than 300 military officers were sentenced to jail on charges of plotting to overthrow Erdogan a decade ago, soon after he and his Justice and Development Party came to power.
In Monday's ruling, handed down by the High Criminal Court in Silivri, 25 miles west of Istanbul, more than a dozen other defendants were given life sentences, including 10 retired military officers and prominent journalist Tuncay Ozkan, who helped organize anti-government protests. Other sentences ranged from a year to 47 years, according to Turkish media.
The court acquitted 21 defendants and released 16 others because of time already served.
In a statement released after the verdict, Basbug said his conscience was clear, the Turkish English-language daily Hurriyet reported.
“For those who have been tried under these circumstances, the final say is the people’s say. And the people are never wrong and are never deceived,” he said in the statement. “Those who have always stood beside the righteous people, beside justice, have a clear conscience. I am one of those people.”
The trial has been deeply polarizing for a country with a complicated history between secularists and the religiously conservative.
The case was initially hailed by the Turkish public, who saw it as an opportunity to dismantle the shadowy network of secularists known as “Deep State” believed to control the levers of power behind the scenes and operate with impunity, according to Today's Zaman, an English-language daily newspaper in Turkey.
But critics contended it was aimed at attacking Turkey’s secular identity and stifling opposition to Erdogan and his Islamist AK Party.
On Saturday, police raided the offices of a secularist association, political party and television channel and arrested 20 people who had been calling for protests, Today’s Zaman reported.
Police set up barricades outside the jail complex and fired tear gas at the defendants’ supporters who had gathered outside. It was a reminder of the most recent challenge to Erdogan’s government when riot police attacked demonstrators camped out at Istanbul’s Gezi Park protesting planned development of the park and deepening the country’s political divide.
Sinan Aygun, deputy of the main Republican People’s Party, who was sentenced to 13 years and six months, said he respected the decision, Hurriyet reported. But Aygun added that his party’s leader “did not expect so many life sentences.”
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