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Turkey’s ‘Sledgehammer’ coup officers lose appeal in blow to military

Decision to uphold sentences against retired high-ranking military officers over plot to overthrow the government deepens state’s division with secularists. Thomas Seibert reports

The relative of an army officer cries outside the appeals court in Ankara after the court upheld the convictions of scores of top retired military officers over a 2003 coup plot Adem Altan / AFP
The relative of an army officer cries outside the appeals court in Ankara after the court upheld the convictions of scores of top retired military officers over a 2003 coup plot Adem Altan / AFP

ISTANBUL // A decision on Wednesday to uphold prison sentences against retired high-ranking military officers for a plot to overthrow the government has deepened divisions between Turkey’s secularists and the Islamist-rooted government.

The court of appeals in Ankara unanimously confirmed 237 convictions handed down by a court in Istanbul last year. The accused included former commanders of the air force and navy, Ibrahim Firtina, 72, and Ozden Ornek, 70, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for taking part in a coup plot code-named “Balyoz”, or “Sledgehammer”.

The ruling was greeted with howls of protest by several hundred supporters of the accused outside the court. Some relatives of the defendants wept in court. Oda TV, a news portal critical of the government, reported that there were shouts of “May God punish you” against the judges while the verdict was being read out.

Yesterday’s verdict added to tensions in Turkish society that were triggered by a wave of nationwide anti-government unrest in June, during which seven people died.

The appeals court decision was the first legal test of convictions of hundreds of military officers found guilty of coup-plotting by lower courts in recent years. It is likely to be regarded as a guideline for similar cases, dealing a further blow to the military, which wielded immense political power as a self-styled guardian of secularism for decades, but which has seen its influence pushed back under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.

In August, the former chief of general staff, Ilker Basbug, and more than 200 other former officers as well as academics and journalists were convicted in separate trial dealing with coup plots against Mr Erdogan in the last decade. That case is also expected to come before the appeals court.

Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam, say the convictions are the necessary answer to efforts inside the military to act against the elected government. Turkey’s generals have pushed four governments from power since 1960 and openly threatened to unseat Mr Erdogan in 2007.

But opponents of Mr Erdogan accuse the government of conducting a campaign to weaken the political role of the armed forces by tarnishing its image.

Umut Oran, deputy leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said yesterday’s verdict meant that “the mentality of rule of law in Turkey has completely ended and has been replaced by a mentality of party-rule”. Writing on his Twitter account, Mr Oran said that after the verdict “everybody can be sentenced under illogical, extralegal and false evidence”.

Emine Ulker Tarhan, another CHP member, said the verdict was “not a decision by the judiciary, but a decision by the government”.

Kazim Yigit Akalin, a member of the Sledgehammer defence team, told The National the verdict would set a dangerous precedent. “This is a bad day for Turkey, the verdict is a black stain that will take 20 years to remove,” he said. “This government leaves Turkey under rubble.”

At the centre of the case was a meeting of leading officers in Istanbul in early 2003, just months after the AKP had been voted into power in late 2002. The meeting became public in early 2010 when reports, based on minutes of the meeting and other documents, were published in the newspaper Taraf. The newspaper reports triggered an investigation and the subsequent trial.

Prosecutors said the coup plotters worked out a plan that included bomb attacks against mosques in Istanbul in an effort to heighten tensions in the country and prepare the ground for a military takeover.

Defendants said they were meeting to conduct a routine war game dealing with potential threats to the country and accused the prosecution of foul play. Mr Akalin said some CDs cited as evidence carried data only available in 2005 and 2008, although they were said to be from 2003.

“Every child can see that,” he said. “Law students in other countries would laugh about this.”

Mr Akalin said the defence team was considering an appeal to Turkey’s constitutional court but added he had not much hope that such an initiative would be successful. After a verdict of the constitutional court, the only option would be to turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but a trial there would take years.

The convicts were not present during the announcement of yesterday’s verdict, in line with rules of the appeals court.

In the first trial in Istanbul last year, 325 people were sentenced, while another 35 were acquitted. In its verdict yesterday, the appeals court confirmed the acquittals and overturned the convictions of the other 88 suspects.

tseibert@thenational.ae