IZMIR, Turkey — A local court on Monday sentenced at least 10 defendants out of 275, including a former army chief of staff, to life in prison for their role in plotting a military coup to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and acquitted 17.
After five years in one of Turkey’s most politically charged cases to date, the court, in a prison complex in Silivri, a western Istanbul province, sentenced some of the suspects, including Mustafa Balbay, an elected member of Parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party, to prison terms ranging from six months to 129 years.
The court issued arrest warrants for 11 suspects who had been tried without being arrested.
Among the suspects who were handed life sentences were: Ilker Basbug, who served as military chief of staff under the current government; Veli Kucuk, the lead suspect in the trial and a former brigadier general suspected of founding Jitem, a wing of the Turkish gendarmerie; and Hursit Tolon, a former army commander.
Also receiving life sentences were: Kemal Kerincsiz, a lawyer who has filed complaints against 40 writers for “insulting Turkishness,” and Tuncay Ozkan, a journalist. Ozkan was additionally sentenced to more than 11 years in prison on other charges, his lawyer said.
Balbay was sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison. Dogu Perincek, chairman of the left-wing Workers’ Party, received a 117-year prison term. Sinan Aygun, another opposition Parliament member, was sentenced to 13 years and six months, while at least seven journalists were handed prison terms between six months to 22 years, news outlets reported.
Turkey has faced criticism for having a poor record of media freedom. The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders has referred to Turkey as “the world’s biggest prison for reporters.”
The group ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index.
Families were denied access to the final hearing, and state officials blocked access to the Silivri courthouse. Roads leading to the town were closed in the early morning, preventing buses of protesters from reaching the area.
Television images showed security forces erecting barricades around the prison premises and at checkpoints on the Silivri highway, as well as images of antigovernment protesters in an open field far from the prison premises waving flags behind a security cordon.
Protesters tried to block the main highway around Silivri after verdicts were announced, but were confronted by security forces, who fired tear gas in fields near the prison complex, the Ulusal Kanal TV station reported.
Lawyers criticized the security measures as a violation of human and legal rights, and insisted the trial was unfair when the courts refused to examine evidence that they said would show close links between the police, the prosecutors’ office, and judges in an unlawful attempt to silence political opponents.
“In these cases, they tried to create a thornless rose garden by silencing the opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles,” said Celal Ulgen, a lawyer representing 16 defendants, including Ozkan, the journalist. “After the Ergenekon trial, it’s impossible to talk about a justice system free of politics, or public trust in justice.”
On Saturday, in what critics said were preemptive security measures before the verdict, the Istanbul police raided several locations, including offices of a neonationalist youth group, and detained at least 20 people who called for public protests against the trial.
The court case, named Ergenekon for a mythic valley that is the moniker of the clandestine organization to which the defendants are accused of belonging, is at the center of Turkey’s many fissures. It has looked into charges listed in 23 indictments that took up thousands of pages and involved 275 suspects, 66 of whom were under arrest, all accused of terrorist links.
In more than 320 hearings, judges questioned many prominent Turkish figures, including Basbug, a former chief of staff in the army, NATO’s second-largest, on charges of links to the Ergenekon organization, claims that he strongly denied.
Mehmet Haberal, 69, an acclaimed professor of medicine and a deputy of the Republican People’s Party, was sentenced to 12 years and six months in prison; however, he was acquitted on another set of charges.
Haberal will be released with 16 others until a court of appeals examines his sentence.