A Turkish court labeled the country’s former army chief a terrorist who plotted to oust Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, and sentenced him to life in prison alongside dozens of generals, journalists and academics.
Ilker Basbug, who led the army’s fight against Kurdish militants in coordination with Erdogan until his retirement in 2010, walked out of the courtroom near Istanbul in reaction to today’s verdict, the state-run Anatolia news agency said. About 275 people were charged in the case and most were convicted, though full details of the verdict haven’t been disclosed.
The conviction of Basbug and several other top generals, who also received life in prison, marked the biggest crackdown on Turkey’s secular military since it established the republic in 1923, and the ascendance of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government, which has eroded the army’s powers during its decade in office. The verdict came at the end of a six-year probe and less than a year after 330 officers were jailed on charges related to a separate coup plot.
The defendants in the Ergenekon case, named after the alleged terrorist group that they were linked to, included journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, politicians and mobsters. Three lawmakers from the main opposition secular Republican People’s Party, including journalist-turned-politician Mustafa Balbay and surgeon Mehmet Haberal, were sentenced to between 12 and 35 years in prison
“The Ergenekon case confirms that civilian authority has effectively consolidated power and influence over the military establishment in Turkey,” Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said by phone after the verdict.
The verdict may not have much impact on financial markets because “Turkey’s business environment depends now much more on the style of governance by Prime Minister Erdogan rather than any verdict relating to military coups,” Hakura said.
The lira weakened 0.4 percent against the dollar at 5:30 p.m. in Istanbul. Yields on two-year benchmark notes dropped 7 basis points to 8.77 percent, and the benchmark stock index closed up 0.2 percent from yesterday, though it pared gains after the verdicts were announced.
Defendants in the Ergenekon case and the earlier Sledgehammer trial denied the charges, and many of them claimed the evidence against them were forged. Erdogan’s party has denied allegations of political interference in the coup plot cases, and says the trials are part of the democratization of a country where the generals have pushed four elected governments from power since 1960.
Basbug said on his website that the public will have the “final say” about the verdicts. “If society questions the independence of judges and doubts the legality of their decisions, then the rule of law can’t be said to exist,” NTV television reported him as saying.
Outside the court, police used tear gas against supporters of the defendants, including Dogu Perincek, head of the left-wing Turkey Workers’ Party, who also received life in prison. Paramilitary police blocked roads leading to the court, and officials prevented families of defendants from attending the hearing, citing a terror threat to justify the tight security.
“The existence of an organization called Ergenekon, and the fact that it planned a coup to overthrow the legitimate government, has been documented,” Ertan Aydin, an adviser to Erdogan, said on Twitter after the verdict. “Now let’s see who defends it.”
The army’s waning power has been welcomed by international organizations including the European Union. Questions have been raised, though, by the EU and rights groups about the fairness of the trials and the range of people implicated in a case which has polarized Turkey.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said last month that the detentions in the Sledgehammer case violated international law. It cited lengthy pre-trial detentions, lack of presumption of innocence, failure to present exculpatory evidence to the defense or to allow it to call witnesses, and the court’s refusal to appoint experts to assess the validity of evidence.