A Turkish criminal court convicted 254 defendants of trying to overthrow the Islamist government in a highly politicized trial that reached its conclusion yesterday after five years.
The convicted – all secular critics of Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamization of Turkey — included army officers, parliamentarians, politicians, journalists and writers from the highest positions in Turkish society. Many were given life sentences plus additional years with one prominent journalist sentenced to life in solitary confinement.
The court was able to hand down such harsh sentences by declaring that the defendants belonged to a terrorist group — dubbed the Ergenekon network — who had allegedly plotted to wreak havoc in Turkey to ultimately bring down Erdogan and his Islamist agenda for Turkey.
Charges brought against the original 273 defendants – many of whom have been detained since 2008 — included membership in an underground terrorist organization, possession of illegal weapons and instigating an armed uprising.
Tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets to protest the verdicts which may well mark a point of no return for Turkey’s secularists, who were once politically dominate and traditionally controlled the military.
That dominance may no longer be the case with the current convictions and life imprisonment of Turkey’s top military brass. Those convicted included the former head of the Armed Forces Ilker Basbug, the former commander of the First Army Hur?it Tolon, the former Second Chief of General Staff Gen. Hasan I?s?z, former Gendarmerie Forces Cmdr. ?ener Eruygur, among many other generals and colonels of the armed forces.
Prominent journalists and writers were also targeted in the trial. The chilling effect on Turkish society brought by these convictions is particularly worrisome.
In addition, secularists now fear that these convictions provide proof that Erdogan’s AKP Islamist party also controls the judicial branch of the government, sealing its ascendancy in the country once dominated by secular politicians.
The trial was largely viewed as a litmus test of Erdogan’s power over his opponents and critics, a struggle which began a decade ago with Erdogan’s election in 2003.
In a statement, convicted former Armed Forces head Basbug, who served as recently as 2010, said, "If in a country, the people are questioning the independence of judges, if people have doubts about the legality of the court rulings, then the rule of law cannot be claimed in that country."
One of the most high-profile journalists to be convicted was Tuncay Ozkan, the founder of the KanalTürk network. Ozkan was also given a life sentence.
The former chief editor of daily Cumhuriyet, Mustafa Balbay, who was also elected as a deputy of the main opposition party, Republican People's Party, was also convicted and sentenced to 34 years and eight months in prison.
Akif Hamzacebi, his colleague from the Republican People's Party, said the verdict was unacceptable to the Turkish people: "This is a menace to the army of the republic of Turkey. If you are trying someone who has been the commander of Turkish armed forces for being a member of a terrorist organization, it means you are targeting and trying the army of the republic of Turkey. This nation won't accept this."
With helicopters overhead, battalions of hundreds of riot police stationed in front of the specially fortified courthouse, sprayed protesters with tear gas and water cannons, a familiar sight in Turkey.
"This trial was run with fake documents, fake evidence and secret undisclosed witnesses," said Ismail Aydogmus, identified as a 57-year-old writer from Istanbul. "The security precautions are taking place because the court is afraid of the verdict."