ISTANBUL —A court today convicted Turkey’s former military chief of trying to overthrow the government and sentenced him to life in prison.
Retired Gen. Ilker Basbug was the most prominent defendant among some 250 people facing verdicts in a landmark trial regarding a coup plot that allegedly was hatched soon after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government came to power in 2002.
At least 16 other defendants were sentenced today to life in prison, including 10 retired military officers, while 60 other defendants received sentences ranging from a year to 47 years, according to state-run TRT television news. At least 21 people were acquitted.
The verdicts were capping a five-year trial that has generated tension between the country’s secular elite and Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party.
The trial has sparked some protests. Today police blocked hundreds of demonstrators from reaching the courthouse in Silivri, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Istanbul, in a show of solidarity with the defendants. There were some reports of clashes. But the verdicts were not expected to set off weeks of violent anti-government demonstrations such as the ones recently sparked by a government plan to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks at a park near Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.
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.
The defendants were accused of being part of an alleged ultranationalist and pro-secular gang 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, that were made to look as though they were carried out by Islamic militants, in a bid to create turmoil and provoke a military intervention.
Prosecutors say the gang also plotted to kill Erdogan, Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk and other high-profile figures.
The defendants had rejected the accusations.
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 ultranationalists 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.