ISTANBUL — Hundreds of Turkish military officers convicted of plotting to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan were petitioning for release on Thursday after the country's top court ruled their trial was flawed.
The 2010-2012 “Sledgehammer” trial marked a high-point in Erdogan's drive to tame an army that for decades had dominated politics. But in consigning a large number of senior serving as well as retired officers to jail, it also eroded NATO's second biggest army amid tension on borders with Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan said early this year he was open to the idea of a retrial. Officials suggested evidence had been manipulated by an influential Islamic cleric who had been using influence in police and judiciary to help Erdogan break the army's power.
Cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan turned bitter rival, denies any wrongdoing.
The constitutional court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the officers' rights had been violated in the handling of digital evidence and the refusal to hear testimony from two former top military commanders as requested by defendants.
Celal Ulgen, defending some of the officers, said: “If the constitutional court ruling arrives during the day, the releases may begin.”
He told Reuters lawyers for some of the defendants had already applied for their release although the court had said individual applications were unnecessary. Media reports said 81 of those convicted had so far sought their release.
Release of the officers could ease relations between Erdogan - his primacy over the army largely secured - and an officer corps he has excluded from policy-making bodies since coming to power in 2003. The generals, who had removed four governments in four decades, viewed Erdogan with suspicion because of his Islamist past but his popularity afforded him some protection.
1980 coup leader jailed
In March, a court ordered the release of a former military chief and other defendants accused of the separate “Ergenekon” plot also to topple the government.
Erdogan, who is expected to seek the presidency in an August election, is now focused on battling U.S.-based cleric Gulen, whom he also accuses of trying to unseat him.
The election comes at a time of heightened tensions on Turkey's frontiers. The armed forces have deployed additional defenses on the Syrian border to cope with spillover from civil war there and a Sunni insurgency in Iraq has also raised alarm in Ankara.
More than 300 officers were sentenced in September 2012 over the alleged “Sledgehammer” conspiracy and the appeals court upheld their convictions last October.
The alleged plot dates back to 2003, months after Erdogan first came to power, and was said to include plans to bomb mosques and trigger a conflict with Greece by shooting down one of Turkey's own warplanes to trigger a military takeover.
Turkey's armed forces were long the guardians of the secular republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, carrying out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushing an Islamist-led government from power in 1997.
Since first coming to power, Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party has reined in army influence with a series of reforms designed to boost democracy, while prosecutors have pursued suspected coup-plotters in the army through the courts.
The leading defendants in the Sledgehammer case were Cetin Dogan, a former commander of the prestigious First Army, former air force commander Ibrahim Firtina and retired admiral Ozden Ornek, who were given 20-year prison sentences.
Sledgehammer and other trials sparked accusations that the government was using courts to silence political opponents.
Former army chief Kenan Evren, 96, was sentenced to life in jail on Wednesday for leading a 1980 coup that resulted in widespread torture, arrests and deaths.