By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish leaders appeared to distance themselves on Thursday from a court that handed a life prison term to a former top general over a coup plot, a landmark case that has polarised Turks over the country's political direction.
The trial was widely seen as part of efforts by the Islamist-rooted government to tackle opponents in the military and had the public support of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. But he and President Abdullah Gul gave a muted sober response to the outcome, wary of providing any spark for another bout of unrest.
Erdogan faced fierce anti-government protests in May and June over what critics call his authoritarian style. The life sentences imposed on ex-armed forces commander Ilker Basbug and 16 other defendants on Monday risk handing political capital to the opposition ahead of an election cycle starting next year.
Many Turks still revere their military as the founders and defenders of the modern, secular republic.
Gul said he was saddened by the life term given to Basbug and hoped any "mistakes" would be rectified by appeals courts. Erdogan indicated he stood by previous comments it was wrong to label his one-time chief of staff a "terrorist".
Judges convicted Basbug and more than 250 other people in connection with an ultra-nationalist "terrorist" network, dubbed Ergenekon, found to have plotted against Erdogan's government and engaged in acts of violence.
The case was seen as the culmination of attempts over the past decade to clip the wings of a military that staged three outright coups since 1960 and removed a fourth government, the first led by Islamists, in 1997 - a process Erdogan has described as the stamping out of anti-democratic forces.
Last year, another court jailed 330 army officers on charges related to another coup plot.
DISILLUSION OVER EXPANSION OF TRIAL
The Ergenekon trial initially won public support for confronting a history of murky political violence. But as it dragged on, with defendants held for up to five years without conviction and more mainstream opponents of Erdogan's rule indicted, it was increasingly seen as a settling of scores.
The high-security court on the outskirts of Istanbul handed down lengthy prison terms to 254 of the 275 defendants who included journalists, lawyers, parliamentarians, academics and organised crime figures.
"I feel sadness regarding the chief of the General Staff," Gul told reporters in Istanbul in comments aired by state TV channel TRT. "We hope that if there were mistakes, these will be corrected at the appeals court or at other phases, and rulings that will ease the public's conscience will emerge."
Meanwhile, Erdogan said the legal process continued and that he stood by a remark he made earlier this year - that it was "unforgivable" to label Basbug a terrorist. However, Erdogan also warned he would not tolerate protests over the verdict.
On the day of the verdict, Mustafa Balbay, a journalist and elected member of parliament who was sentenced to almost 35 years in prison, shouted: "It's going to be a hot autumn."
Asked about a new wave of protests, Erdogan said: "The country's security forces will show them their place, because these people are clearly not looking for rights and freedoms.
"(My) party has done more for basic rights than in all of the Republic's preceding years."
The European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, did not comment directly on the verdict. But an EU spokesman expressed general concerns about lengthy indictments, mass trials and adequate rights of defence in the candidate country.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said this week that President Barack Obama's administration does "note the severity of the sentences", but declined to comment further.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)