Turkey Sledgehammer trial: Key coup sentences upheld

Relatives of the detained military officers stage a rally in Ankara Relatives of the detained military officers say the trial is a witch hunt against the armed forces

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A Turkish court has upheld the convictions of key military officers ruled to have plotted the overthrow of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.

A retired general accused of being the coup plot organiser, Cetin Dogan, had his 20-year prison sentence upheld.

More than 300 people were jailed last year over the "Sledgehammer" plot against the Islamist-rooted government.

The appeals court also ruled that more than 100 defendants should be acquitted or face a retrial.

The investigations into Sledgehammer, and a separate alleged coup plot known as Ergenekon, are the most prominent cases that have been pursued against military officials by Mr Erdogan's government, which has its roots in political Islam.

'Preparing a coup'

This is yet another controversial case reflecting the fault lines in Turkish society.

Pro-government voices were quick to say the decision of the judiciary should be respected, with some celebrating the decision.

But the opposition was as prompt in condemning it. The opposition argues that the latest decision is a "disgrace"; that it opens yet another wound in the Turkish judicial system, a suggestion that a truly independent judiciary is lacking; that the evidence presented was fabricated and the whole case was in reality staged, with the sole aim of curbing the powers of the military.

This case - as with Ergenekon trial in August - sends a concrete message about the future role of the Turkish military: generals should intervene in politics no more.

However, as it solidifies the government's authority, it is also likely to polarise Turkish society even further, since there is widespread resentment among secularists who see this as part of the government's Islamist agenda.

At last year's trial near Istanbul, prosecutors said Operation Sledgehammer was a conspiracy created in 2003 whose aim was to trigger a coup against the elected government of Mr Erdogan.

Military officers were accused of plotting to bomb mosques and trying to trigger a war with Greece.

The prosecution argued that the officers aimed to provoke widespread civil unrest in order to justify a military intervention.

The Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara has now decided to uphold the convictions of 237 retired officers.

The most prominent defendants - former army commander Cetin Dogan, former navy chief Ozden Ornek and former air force chief Ibrahim Firtina - had their 20-year sentences for plotting a coup confirmed.

'Witch hunt'

Thirty-six retired military officers were acquitted by the Appeals Court.

Eighty-eight other defendants will have their cases re-assessed by lower courts, to see if they face a retrial or have no case to answer.

The defendants had argued that the evidence against them was fabricated, describing the two-year trial as "unfair and unlawful".

Former Turkish army commander, Cetin Dogan Former army commander, Cetin Dogan, was considered the coup plot organiser

They also accused the government of carrying out a witch hunt against the armed forces.

The decision to uphold the majority of the convictions is a further sign that the Turkish military has lost its once-overwhelming political power, says the BBC's James Reynolds in Istanbul.

For decades, the armed forces were the ultimate arbiter in Turkish politics.

Between 1960 and 1997, the military forced out four civilian governments.

But over the last decade, Mr Erdogan's government has changed the balance of power in Turkey, says our correspondent.

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