A civilian court convicted 325 former military officers of plotting a coup against the AKP government on Friday (September 21st), in a nearly two-year trial marked by controversy as the government tightens its control over the once dominant military.
Çetin Doğan, former commander of the 1st Army; Özden Örnek, former commander of the Navy; and İbrahim Fırtına, the former commander of the Air Force; received the highest sentences as the leaders of the Sledgehammer coup plot.
The three received life without parole, but the sentences were reduced to 20 years in prison because the coup plan was not put into action. Other suspects found guilty by the court received prison sentences from 6 to 18 years. Thirty-four were acquitted.
The officers are accused of a 2003 plot to create a chaotic situation that would justify a military intervention by bombing mosques, shooting down a fighter jet to trigger war with Greece, closing down NGOs, and arresting journalists and the opposition before appointing a new government.
All defendants denied the charges, arguing they are politically motivated and based on fabricated evidence. Much of the prosecution's case is based on a military seminar and questionable digital evidence.
Dogan, the alleged leader of the Sledgehammer plot, called the trial "unfair and unlawful."
"Here we see a process unfolding to make the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal, who give their lives for their country, pay the price of their commitment to the republic and its principles," Dogan said prior to the verdict.
The case will now move to the Supreme Court of Appeals.
"It would not be right to make a statement before the justification. We have to follow the Supreme Court of Appeals process," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters, adding that his expectation is a fair decision.
The Sledgehammer trial has been viewed by many as a power struggle between the military and AKP government, while for others it brings accountability to a military that has historically meddled in politics.
Last July, General Isik Kosaner, the chief of the general staff, along with the heads of the army, navy and air force, resigned in protest over the Sledgehammer case. In Kosaner's resignation letter he said it had become impossible to continue and fulfill his responsiblity to protect military personnel.
With hundreds of active and retired officers awaiting trial or in prison for coup related cases, the military has been badly beaten back. Morale among the officer corp is reported to be low, and there is concern the trials may have gone too far, reducing the fighting effectiveness of the second largest army in NATO.
"There are those who wanted to break the military's political influence," Nejat Eslen, a retired general and writer, told SES Türkiye, pointing to a power struggle between secularists and political Islam.
"The Sledgehammer case is an operation to purge the military," he said. "The court did its duty. The court did its duty as an actor in the political process."
The trial marks the first time a civilian court has tried a coup attempt.
Ümit Kardaş, a retired military judge, told SES Türkiye that with a long history of military intervention in politics the trial is not simply a legal matter, but also a political matter.
"There are political crimes in Turkish law theory," he said, describing them as crimes committed against the state and the nation. "A group with arms wants to overthrow the government, the parliament and conduct its own ideology with the power of arms. It's a political crime."
As a former member of the Turkish military, Kardaş finds the defense's claims that such a coup plan is not possible, illogical. Regarding the arguments of legal mistakes made during the trial, Kardaş said everybody should await the court's justification and if there are irregularities, the high court would handle it. The defendants deserve a fair trial, the former judge underlined.
The Sledgehammer case has been marred by court irregularities, including the court's refusal to hear two key witnesses and accept an independent examination of the digital evidence used in the case.
Hüseyin Ersöz, a defense lawyer, said their two main demands were not accepted by court. The first was allowing Hilmi Özkök, former Chief of General Staff, and Aytaç Yalman, former commander of the land forces to be heard as witnesses.
"There is a claim in the indictment that the Sledgehammer action coup plan which was said to be planned in 2003 was prevented by Hilmi Özkök and Aytaç Yalman after they found out about it," Ersöz said, which makes it mandatory for them to be heard as witnesses.
The court also refused several independent expert reports on the digital evidence. Three independent US, German and Turkish analyses of the digital evidence found the evidence to be forged.
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