Turkey Ergenekon case: Ex-army chief Basbug gets life

The BBC's Jiyar Gol: "Around 1,000 people tried to reach the court but security forces blocked the area"

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Turkey's former armed forces chief has been jailed for life for plotting to overthrow the government, after five years of trials involving officers, lawyers, writers and journalists.

Gen Ilker Basbug was among dozens of people convicted of involvement in the so-called Ergenekon plot.

Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have accused him of staging show trials to eliminate his enemies.

His supporters say the trials have pushed the military out of politics.

Gen Basbug, who led the military between 2008 and 2010, was among at least five generals to be jailed for life on Monday at a specially constructed courtroom west of Istanbul.

After the verdict, he wrote on his Twitter page: "Those on the side of the truth and righteous, that is on the side of justice, have a clear conscience. That is how I am."

Analysis

The Ergenekon trials are based on a belief that there is a lingering "deep state", said to be a network of army officers, business leaders, secularists and arch-nationalists who seek to undermine and even overthrow elected governments.

In the Ergenekon case, the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the "deep state" of conspiring to cause social unrest which would then provoke a military coup. The court in Silivri has now largely agreed with the government's argument.

The heavy sentences given to retired military officers are another sign that the Erdogan administration has changed the nature of the relationship between civilian governments and the military. For decades the military was the final arbiter in Turkish politics. Between 1960 and 1997, the armed forces removed four civilian governments. But Mr Erdogan has asserted civilian supremacy over the military.

The prime minister's critics argue that he has overestimated the threat posed by the deep state - and used it as a pretext to suppress valid opposition.

At least 21 people were acquitted, but dozens of others received lengthy sentences:

  • Journalist Tuncay Ozkan, who helped organise a series of anti-government protests in 2007, was given a life sentence with an additional 16 years
  • Mustafa Balbay, a journalist and MP with the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), was sentenced to 34 years and eight months
  • Lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, famous for bringing cases against cultural figures accusing them of "anti-Turkishness", was jailed for life
  • Workers' Party leader Dogu Perincek, whose party advocates a mixture of socialism and ultra-nationalism, was jailed for life
Tear gas

The plot allegedly aimed to topple the government led by Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The defendants faced charges ranging from membership of Ergenekon, an alleged underground terrorist network, to illegally possessing weapons and instigating an armed uprising against the AKP.

Prosecutors had demanded life imprisonment for Gen Basbug and 63 others, including nine other generals.

The court is sitting at the high-security Silivri prison complex, west of Istanbul, where the general is being held.

This picture taken on August 6, 2008 shows Turkish chief of staff Ilker Basbug in Ankara Gen Ilker Basbug led the army between 2008 and 2010

Hundreds of riot police fired tear gas to disperse some 1,000 protesters who were marching outside the court.

Akif Hamzacebi, an MP with the Republican People's Party, said the nation would not accept Gen Basbug's conviction.

"If you are trying someone who has been the commander of the Turkish armed forces for being a member of a terrorist organisation, that means you are targeting and trying the army of the Republic of Turkey," he said.

The case is being seen as a key test in Mr Erdogan's showdown with secularist and military opponents.

Since he came to power in 2002, hundreds of military officers - serving or retired - have been arrested.

Critics say there is little evidence for the charges and accuse the government of trying to silence its secularist opponents.

Mr Erdogan has denied any political interference in the case.

Start Quote

The Ergenekon trial and the legal reforms around it have brought to an end the Kemalist model of checks and balances between different pillars of authority within Turkey. The case may have resulted in consolidation of power of the government, but it is likely to continue to polarise the country, leaving many sections of society unsatisfied”

End Quote

Monday's sentencing hearing is the culmination of a number of trials that began in 2008.

As the investigation widened, dozens more suspects were held, and their cases were eventually folded into the main trial.

Some of the suspects have been in custody awaiting verdicts for five years.

Rights groups have raised concerns over the conduct of the trials.

Turkey's military has long seen itself as the guarantor of the secular constitution.

It staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and has a history of tension with the AKP.

The AKP is considered a successor to the Welfare Party, an Islamist party that led a government forced to resign by an army-led campaign in 1997.

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