ISTANBUL // A decade ago, it would have been inconceivable: high-ranking members of the Turkish military on trial.
Yesterday, though, "guilty" echoed in a make-shift civilian courtroom as three former generals and 327 other officers in various branches of Turkish armed forces were convicted of a 2003 plot, dubbed "Sledgehammer", to overthrow the government.
Pro-government groups hailed the trial as a step toward democracy, while critics branded it a witch-hunt and an unfair trial full of tampered evidence.
One thing was certain - the Turkish military, which had overthrown governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980 was severely diminished.
Omer Diken, the presiding judge, said life sentences against the three main defendants were reduced to 20 years in prison because the coup attempt had failed. They have the right to appeal.
The court named retired general Cetin Dogan, a former commander of the prestigious First Army, as the leader of the coup attempt.
Ibrahim Firtina, a former air force chief, and Ozden Ornek, a former commander of Turkey's navy, also received prison sentences of 20 years each. Other former military officers were sentenced to 18 years. Thirty-four people in the trial were acquitted.
The generals were found guilty of using a war game titled "Sledgehammer" in 2003 to prepare a coup attempt against the government. It was the first verdict in a series of trials against several hundred officers from the strictly secular military along with right-wing civilians accused of hatching coup plots against the Islamist-orientated government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.
Critics accuse the Erdogan government of using the trial as an instrument to weaken the military, which regards political Islam as a threat and which has pushed four Turkish governments from office since 1960. In 2007, generals threatened to stage a coup against Mr Erdogan.
Celal Ulgen, a lawyer for Gen Dogan, said the court had acted under political pressure. "This is a black day for the Turkish judiciary," Mr Ulgen told the NTV news channel. "There is no independent judiciary, but a judiciary that is the backyard of the government."
Television footage from outside the court building in Silivri near Istanbul showed the wives of several generals breaking down in tears after the verdicts were read.
In court before the verdicts, defendants sang the anthem of Turkey's military academy, where many of them were trained as young officers. "We have built this republic with blood and wisdom," they sang. "We are undying guardians, even if all hell breaks loose."
The trial was held in a courtroom built for mass trials against alleged coup plotters on the grounds of a prison in Silivri, about 50 kilometres west of Istanbul, because court rooms in Istanbul were not big enough. Two-hundred and fifty defendants had been in pre-trial custody, some of them for more than two years. The defence said some of the evidence had been manipulated. In one incident, a Turkish warship mentioned in connection with the events of 2003 was built in 2005. In another example, prosecutors presented a list of companies that they said were selected by the coup plotters to be nationalised after the planned takeover, but one company was listed under a name it took in 2009.
Prosecutors denied that the evidence had been tempered with and said some aspects of the "Sledgehammer" plan had been updated in the years following the initial planning session of 2003.
Zaman, a pro-government newspaper, reported on Thursday that the testimony by retired general Hilmi Ozkok, the chief of general staff during 2003, in another continuing trial against former military officers, was a crucial moment in the trial.
Gen Ozkok, who did not take part in the "Sledgehammer" war game, said last month that the drill had gone far beyond the normal scope of such an exercise. The "Sledgehammer" conspiracy is alleged to have included plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece to pave the way for an army takeover.