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Turkey convicts 322 military officers in coup plot

A Turkish court sentenced 322 military officers to jail on Friday for planning a 2003 coup against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, closing the curtain on a trial that underscored civilian dominance over the once all-powerful military.

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A Turkish court sentenced over 300 military officers to prison on Friday for plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, closing the curtain on a trial that underscored civilian dominance over the once all-powerful military.

The court in Silivri, on the western outskirts of Istanbul, initially condemned three senior military officials accused of masterminding the plot, former air force chief Ibrahim Firtina, former navy chief Ozden Ornek and former army commander Cetin Dogan, to life in prison but their sentences were later reduced to 20 years. The ruling evoked an emotional response from family and loved ones in the courtroom, some of whom broke down into tears upon the news.

Although the trio were handed by far the harshest sentences, a further 322 active and retired army officers were also sentenced to varying prison terms, while 34 others were acquitted, according to Reuters.

The ‘Sledgehammer’ trial was seen as a crucial step toward easing the military’s grip on power. For decades, the country’s secular political structure was manipulated and controlled by military powers, which carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and put enormous pressure on the Islamist-led government to step down in 1997.

But Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, which came to power a decade ago, has significantly contained military influence over policy and ministerial appointments in a bid to strengthen democracy, while prosecutors have sought to bring down suspected coup-makers through the justice system.

“To comment without seeing the reasons for the verdict would be inappropriate. There is an appeals process. What is important for us is that the right decision emerges,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, as the sentences were being announced.

The coup plot

The military officers were accused of plotting to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece in order to justify a military takeover.

FRANCE 24's Jasper Mortimer reports from Turkey

“The generals planned to discredit the government, which was popular, by creating mayhem,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Jasper Mortimer reported from Turkey. “The hope was that after these atrocities the public at large would be so shocked that they would actually want the military to step in and take over the country.

Prosecutors had demanded 15 to 20-year jail sentences for the 365 defendants, 364 of whom are active or retired officers.

Those sentenced to 18-year terms included Engin Alan, a retired general elected to parliament as a member of the National Movement Party last year, and Bilgin Baranli, who had been in line to become Air Force commander before his arrest last year.

‘Motivated by revenge’

The Sledgehammer trial, however, has not been without controversy, with some accusing Erdogan’s government of using the trial as a means to silence political opponents.

“When these prosecutions began, they did enjoy public support,” Mortimer said. “People were shocked to learn that generals were prepared to go so far in their opposition to the Islamic leaning government. But then the prosecution went too far and they detained people unnecessarily and secularists accused the government of conducting a witch hunt.”

Other cases, such as “Ergenekon”, which involves a web of alleged plots against Turkey’s government, have sparked similar criticism.

Thousands of people, including journalists, lawyers and politicians, are currently in jail pending verdicts in trials that human rights groups say raise questions about Turkey’s commitment to democratic rights.

Dogan’s daughter Pinar Dogan, a lecturer at Harvard University, said her family believed the case was aimed at settling old scores and pointed to reports by experts who said computer documents submitted as evidence appeared doctored.

“Going after those perceived as opposed to this government because of its Islamist leaning is motivated in part by revenge. My father was a retired man with no political clout left,” she said.

“He had no sympathy for this government, but he would never have bombed mosques or shot down planes, never.”

The Turkish military is NATO’s second-biggest standing force after the United States. Its main domestic challenge has been militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and European Union.

The past few months have seen some of the heaviest fighting since the PKK took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out a Kurdish state. Turkish troops are also serving in Afghanistan, Northern Cyprus and Lebanon as well as at small observation posts set up in the 1990s in Iraq.

(FRANCE24 with wires)

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