Turkey coup verdict draws ridicule

ANKARA, Turkey - Analysts in Turkey heaped scorn on a court's decision to sentence a former army chief to life in jail following a divisive trial of 275 people accused of plotting a coup.

The civilian court on Monday imprisoned former top general Ilker Basbug for life and handed down lengthy sentences to other retired high-ranking officers, academics, politicians, lawyers and journalists in a landmark verdict that prompted ridicule from some observers.

Mr Umit Kocasakal, head of the Istanbul Bar Association, dismissed the trial as a "theatre play".

"The play is over, applaud!" he said sarcastically, a phrase traditionally used at the end of Roman plays.

"An unlawful end is fitting for such an unlawful court case," he added.

The mass trial was seen as a key test in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's showdown with secularist and military opponents, and critics branded it as a witch hunt aimed at stifling dissent. The defendants faced dozens of charges, ranging from membership of an underground "terrorist organisation" to arson, illegal weapons possession and instigating an armed uprising against Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002.

Only 21 of the 275 defendants were acquitted, although others were convicted and then released as they had already served time in prison.

Former justice minister Hikmet Sami Turk said that he has serious reservations about the heavy penalties that should have been handed down only with "very tangible evidence".

"You have army generals, journalists and lawyers among the convicted. How did they end up joining forces to stage a coup?" he said.

He added that "the ruling has seriously shaken trust in the judiciary".

Pro-government circles, however, have praised the trial as a step towards democracy in Turkey, urging respect for what they said is an independent judiciary.

Observers in Turkey initially hailed the probe as promising to reveal a secularist plot, but the lengthy proceedings and lack of evidence overshadowed the so-called Operation Gladio.

Suspicions also arose that the case was a way for Mr Erdogan's government to avenge the army's ouster of his Islamist predecessors.

The charges triggered an angry reaction across the country, with defendants openly suggesting that the trial was being used by the government to strike down the all-powerful army, the self-appointed guardian of secularism.

In February, Mr Erdogan defended the army, and Basbug in particular, saying: "It would be a serious mistake to say Ilker Basbug is a member of a terrorist organisation."

Basbug, 70, led Turkey's military campaign against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party for many years, only to be accused in retirement of having led a terrorist group himself.

In a Twitter post at the weekend, he branded the trial as "a black stain on the glorious history of the Turkish state and its army" and said he believed the Turkish public would not accept "the punishment of innocent people".

The verdicts are expected to be appealed, a process that analysts said could last at least two years.

Mr Kocasakal said: "These days will be left behind, but the judges who issued the verdicts will not be able to escape the judgment of history."