By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of Turkish military officers convicted of plotting to overthrow the government were themselves victims of a conspiracy concocted with the knowledge of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the chief suspect in the case said on Friday.
Speaking a day after his release from jail, retired General Cetin Dogan said the Sledgehammer case would not be over until those behind the conspiracy were imprisoned.
"I call them the four horsemen of the apocalypse: there is a political side, a media dimension, a police dimension and a judicial dimension. They were organized in a clear structure, but with the knowledge of the prime minister," he told Reuters at his home in a leafy military residential complex in Istanbul.
"This trial will finish when those who concocted the Sledgehammer trial go inside. But I don't have a personal grudge or hatred, that only eats you up inside," he said.
Dogan, 74, was among 237 convicted officers released from prison on Thursday pending retrial after the constitutional court said their trial was flawed.
The alleged Sledgehammer plot dated from March 2003 when Dogan was commander of the prestigious First Army, soon after Erdogan had come to power.
It was said to include plans to bomb mosques and trigger a conflict with Greece by shooting down one of Turkey's own warplanes, to pave the way for a military takeover.
More than 300 officers were sentenced in September 2012 over the alleged conspiracy and the appeals court upheld their convictions last October.
The case is commonly viewed as a key episode in Erdogan's drive to tame the army and critics accused him at the time of using the courts to pursue a "witchhunt" against the generals.
But he became increasingly critical of the handling of the coup plot cases as they progressed and said early this year he was open to the idea of a retrial.
The armed forces were long viewed as 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.
Dogan said he was saddened to have been imprisoned for four years in the "autumn of my life", recalling the deaths and illnesses of comrades and loved ones during his time in jail, and said the trials had hit morale in the military.
"A significant trauma was experienced. It was impossible for people not to be saddened," he said.
"The armed forces were initially shaken by the coup suspicion, but now I meet people I don't know and they cry and embrace me. This is not out of personal respect for me but because of what was done to the army," he said.
A relaxed-looking Dogan, dressed in a blue T-shirt, white trousers and loafers, repeatedly interrupted the interview to answer phone calls from former comrades-in-arms wishing him well.
He said he did not believe the cases had an impact on the forces' operational ability, despite the loss of senior personnel, because of the "solid" structure of the army in bringing through the next generation of officers.
He believes the image of the military, traditionally viewed as the most respected institution in Turkey, had emerged unscathed from the trials.
Officials have suggested evidence in the case was manipulated by an Islamic cleric who had been using his influence in the police and judiciary to help Erdogan break the army's power.
Cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan turned bitter rival, denies any involvement in Sledgehammer and in a corruption investigation against Erdogan associates that the prime minister accuses him of concocting to topple him.
Asked if he thought followers of U.S.-based Gulen were part of the conspiracy, Dogan said "definitely".
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.
Dogan voiced disappointment at how the coup trials had been seen in the West - as part of the dismantling of decades of "military tutelage" in Turkey and the bringing of the generals to account.
"That the West viewed our unjust and unfair trial as positive for Turkey's democratic development was the point that hurt us," he said, arguing that the military had played a key role in the country's Western orientation.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)