Turkey’s former military chief has been jailed for life for plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

Retired General Ilker Basbug was one of scores of defendants that included politicians, journalists and officers accused of being part of the so-called Ergenekon plot.

Today’s verdicts are the culmination of five years of trials where prosecutors accused defendants of trying to organise high-profile attacks across Turkey and prepare the way for a military coup soon after Erdogan’s government came to power in 2002.

The landmark case has become central in tensions between Turkey’s secular elite and the Prime Minister’s Islamic-orientated Justice and Development Party.

 
The trial of scores of people including journalists and military chiefs accused of plotting to overthrow the government

The trial of scores of people including journalists and military chiefs accused of plotting to overthrow the government has sparked protests in Silivri, Turkey

 

 

 
 
Retired General Illker Basbug (left) was the most high profile of scores of defendants
The plot took place soon after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's (right) government came to power in 2002
 

Retired General Illker Basbug (left) was one of scores of defendants accused of plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s (right) government 

Hundreds of protesters gathered near a courthouse in Silivri ahead of the verdicts,

Hundreds of protesters gathered near a courthouse in Silivri ahead of the verdicts, which have split the country and increased tensions between the secularists and Islamists

 

 

 

 

Basbug and 16 other defendants were sentenced to life in prison. They included 10 retired military officers and Dogu Perincek, the leader of the left-wing and nationalist Workers Party.

Sixty other defendants received sentences ranging from a year to 47 years, according to state-run TRT television news and at least 21 people were acquitted.

The defendants were accused of plotting high-profile attacks that prosecutors said were aimed at sowing chaos in Turkey to prepare the way for a military coup.

The prosecutions already have helped Erdogan’s government reshape Turkey’s military and assert civilian control in a country that had seen three military coups since 1960.

 

Today’s verdicts sparked protests, and police blocked hundreds of demonstrators from reaching the High Criminal Court in Silivri, 25 miles west of Istanbul, in a show of solidarity with the defendants.

However, the trial is not expected  to set off the kind of violent anti-government demonstrations that were recently sparked by a government plan to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks at a park near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.

The trial, which began in 2008, grew out of an investigation into the seizure of 27 hand grenades at the home of a non-commissioned officer in Istanbul in 2007.

The defendants were accused of being part of an alleged ultra-nationalist and pro-secular group called Ergenekon, which takes its name from a legendary valley in Central Asia believed to be the ancestral homeland of Turks.

In thousands of pages of indictments, prosecutors maintained that the gang was behind a series of violent acts, including one in 2006 on a courthouse that killed a judge.

Prosecutors say the incidents were made to look as though they were carried out by Islamic militants, in a bid to create turmoil and provoke  military intervention.

Prosecutors say the gang also plotted to kill Erdogan, Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk and other high-profile figures.

The defendants rejected the accusations and they are expected to appeal today’s verdicts and sentences to the Court of Appeals in Ankara.

Prosecutors demanded life prison terms for 64 of the defendants, mostly on terrorism charges. Others were charged with possession of firearms or merely membership in Ergenekon.

Mehmet Haberal, a surgeon and founder of a university in Ankara, and Mustafa Balbay, the Ankara representative of pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper, both faced life prison terms but received sentences of 12 years and 34 years, respectively.

The two men were elected to Parliament in 2011 while in prison but were not able to take their seats.

Tuncay Ozkan, a prominent journalist who helped organize a series of anti-government protests in 2007, was given a life sentence.

The case has polarized the country between those who see it as an opportunity to unravel a shadowy network of ultra-nationalists known as the ‘Deep State’ that allegedly acted behind the scenes with impunity, and those who believe it is a government attempt to muzzle Erdogan’s secular-minded foes and undermine Turkey’s secular legacy.

In a separate case, more than 300 military officers, including Turkey’s former air force and navy chiefs, were convicted last year of other plots to bring down the government in 2003 and some were sentenced to 20 years in prison. Those verdicts are being appealed.

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