Turkish prosecutors seek jail for 364 officers

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2012 12:04 PM
Turkish prosecutors seek jail for 364 officers

By Ece Toksabay

SILIVRI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish prosecutors demanded 15-20 year jail sentences for 364 serving and retired military officers at a coup plot trial on Thursday, marking a dark day for a military that until recently held the power to make or break governments.

General Cetin Dogan rose from his chair in fury and followed the action of ex-armed forces commander general Ilker Basbug, who stormed out of a separate coup plot trial on Tuesday at a nearby court room in the Silivri top security prison.

Both are accused of leading roles in separate coup plots, one named "Sledgehammer" and the other "Ergenekon", against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. They deny the accusations and view them as a slur on the armed forces whose power over political life has been dramatically cut back since Erodgan took office.

Basbug's trial resumed in dramatic fashion on Thursday when a family friend first collapsed in the courtroom, then regained consciousness, shouting "the Pasha must walk free!" as he lay on the floor. Pasha is the old Ottoman term for a general, used in affection for an army long regarded as guarantor of democracy.

"How can this be done to a chief of staff? These courts will apologize in the end, they should be ashamed!" he shouted, prompting Basbug's wife to admonish him for causing a scene.

Basbug, dressed in a black suit with a Turkish flag pin in his lapel, appeared to have tears in his eyes as he looked on while a doctor administered first aid to his friend before he was stretchered to an ambulance.

After a brief recess that hearing resumed.

SLEDGEHAMMER, ERGENEKON

Hours later, Dogan, former commander of the elite First Army, marched out of his trial as the prosecutor began his final arguments, demanding 15-20 year jail terms for the 365 people, all but one military.

Some 250 of the defendants are already in jail pending a verdict.

"There are witnesses that have not been heard, experts have not been called to the court," Dogan's lawyer Celal Ulgen told Reuters. "The part of the trial which showed last longest is being finished off in a rush.

"We are of the view the proceedings have not been just."

Erdogan, whose AK party embraces nationalists and centre-right elements as well as religious conservatives, denies accusations of a secret Islamist agenda. Critics and even some supporters accuse him however of authoritarian tendencies.

"Sledgehammer" dates to 2003, a year after Erdogan was first elected, stirring secularist fears of an Islamist takeover. It allegedly included plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece. Defendants say the prosecution documents were part of a war game scenario used in a military seminar and that other documents were faked.

"Ergenekon", which has brought the arrest of hundreds of academics, journalists and businessmen as well as military, involved plans for a campaign of disinformation, bombing and assassinations intended to trigger an army coup.

The military has toppled four governments in the past 50 years in coups that ranged in nature from violent takeovers with killings and executions to the more subtle behind-the-scenes action that eased Turkey's first Islamist-led government from power in 1997. Advocates of the army argue they have saved the country from chaos while critics say repeated interventions have deformed and undermined democratic development.

Lawyers involved in the Sledgehammer case told Reuters the prosecutor read only a summary of his 920-page final arguments. Some lawyers expected a verdict within around 10 days, although others said the process could be stretched out further.

Dogan lawyer Ulgen said defense lawyers had refused to take part in Thursday's hearing, arguing that their right to a fair defense was being violated.

He said forensic tests of CDs presented as prosecution evidence showed they could not have been produced before 2007, four years after the alleged coup plot, but the court refused to take those tests commissioned by the defense into consideration.

General Dogan has been in jail since early 2010 and unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat in parliament at last year's general election.

Among the other high-profile defendants are military academies commander General Bilgin Balanli, retired air force commander Halil Ibrahim Firtina and retired navy commander Ozden Ornek.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Ralph Boulton)