ISTANBUL — A court in Istanbul has convicted dozens of former armed forces members of attempting to overthrow Turkey's Islamic-based government. The verdict, like the case, is proving controversial.
Three former senior members of the Turkish armed forces have been convicted as ringleaders in a plot to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All three were sentenced to life in prison but, due to a legal technicality, their sentences were reduced to 20 years. Three others, including a retired general who is now a member of parliament, received 18 years for roles in the plot.
Three-hundred-and-thirty out of the 364 people on trial were convicted. All received the maximum sentence prosecutors were demanding.
The conspiracy, code named Balyoz (Sledgehammer), was started by the military in the early 1990s after the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party came to power. The army, which sees itself as guardian of the secular state, was deeply suspicious of the ruling party's Islamic roots. Prosecutors say the conspiracy sought to create political turmoil in the country by planting bombs in mosques, carrying out assassinations and provoking a war with neighboring Greece.
But defense lawyers and critics claimed much of the evidence was fabricated, pointing out that street names and buildings mentioned in the evidence did not exist at the time of the conspiracy. Ali Ozgunduz, a lawyer and Member of Parliament for the main opposition Republican People's Party, condemned the verdict.
He says the defendants' right to defend themselves has been denied.
Observers say the case has been divisive in Turkey and there has been growing criticism of the way it was handled. But along with large amounts of documentary evidence, a former chief of the armed forces, Hilmi Ozkok, testified for the prosecution.
Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University says the case is a landmark for Turkish democracy.
"It is a major development to the benefit of the demilitarization process in this country," he said.
The convictions are the result of a two-year trial of charges connected to 2003's so-called "Sledgehammer" conspiracy. Turkish officials said the military had devised a plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Erdogan.
The Turkish armed forces have seized power three times since 1960, the last in 1980. Bringing the military under civilian rule is a key demand of European Union membership, which Turkey is seeking. Lawyers for the defendants have said they will be appealing to the European court of human rights.