ISTANBUL – A Turkish court sentenced the accused ringleaders and hundreds of others suspected of being involved in the failed coup in 2016 to several life terms on Thursday. This was the culmination of one of the most important mass trials in the conspiracy to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The trial of 475 defendants centered on a group of high-ranking military officers and civilians who set up a headquarters at the Akinci Air Force Base outside the capital Ankara on the night of the coup, and ordered fighter jets, helicopters and army units to attack and seize key targets. Among the 337 accused, who received several life sentences, were members of a small core accused of having mastered the attempted coup.
The sentences are a cornerstone of the four years of criminal prosecution in Turkey since the coup attempt and put responsibility on those charged as the main perpetrators of a violent attempt to seize power that has been largely denied by the public. But the government’s subsequent suppression of dissent has damaged democracy and the rule of law in the country.
Legal experts criticized the use of mass trials against thousands accused of even vague involvement in the coup, including convictions passed on to army cadets and others who were sent onto the streets that evening with little knowledge of the goings-on.
The coup failed when hundreds of thousands of civilians blocked the streets and pro-government units took control. More than 250 people died, including many police officers and civilians attacked by rogue army units.
Four civilians, Kemal Batmaz, Hakan Cicek, Harun Binis and Nurettin Oruc, were found guilty of carrying out the coup from Akinci base that night. They are accused of following instructions from Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Islamic preacher who has become a bitter rival to Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Gulen, who was in the United States at the time of the coup, and another civilian, Adil Oksuz, who was detained outside Akinci Air Force Base the morning after the coup but later released, were also charged. But they were among six defendants whose cases were later separated because they remained at large.
Among the most prominent military commanders convicted was Brig. General Bekir Ercan Van, commander of Incirlik Air Base, which is also where US forces are stationed and from where they fly missions in Iraq and Syria.
The general ordered tankers to fuel Turkish F-16s that were bombing Ankara during the attempted coup, according to at least one defendant pilot.
After the coup collapsed, General Van approached his American counterparts in Incirlik and applied for asylum, but was refused.
At least 10 pilots who flew over Ankara and bombed locations in the capital, including the parliament and two police headquarters, have been sentenced to several life sentences. Evidence leading to their conviction included tapes of the pilots’ conversations with the control tower describing their actions.
Lt. Col. Hakan Karakus, who is accused of leading the F-16 pilots, and two Air Force captains accused of issuing bomb orders to the pilots, also received 79 life sentences each.
Colonel Karakus is the son-in-law of General Akin Ozturk, the commander of the Turkish Air Force at the time of the attempted coup. General Ozturk was sentenced to several life sentences in 2019 for his role as a key leader in the failed coup.
The trial focused on responsibility for 77 of the 250+ people who were killed in the attempted coup. Nineteen of those convicted were given 79 lives without parole, one for each of the 77 killed and two more for charges of undermining the Constitution and assassinating the President.
The published judgment states that 291 defendants have received life sentences without parole and 46 have been sentenced to life imprisonment with the option of parole. The court acquitted 80 defendants and the rest received lesser sentences.
Most of the defendants denied having participated in the coup attempt. They claimed they either followed orders or that the entire coup attempt was constructed by the Erdogan government, a claim also made by Mr Gulen.
Mr. Gulen and his supporters in the United States have repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup.
But videotapes from surveillance cameras at Akinci Air Force Base confirmed the presence of some of the defendants, including some straining corridors carrying weapons. During taped conversations, pilots described their intentions to deal a blow to the government and compound the prosecution case.
Some of the subordinate officers testified about the actions of their superiors. Police arrested two of the civilian defendants, Mr. Batmaz and Mr. Binis, near the base the morning after the coup attempt and rejected their statement that they were dealing with real estate.
Defendant’s family members and attorneys who represent them have complained about harassment and other obstacles to their work. The defendants complained of torture and ill-treatment in the first few days after their arrest.
However, the defendants were allowed to make their own statements and respond to allegations during the trial, sometimes speaking for hours or days to read their statements. Each defendant and his lawyers were allowed to make concluding remarks.
Mehmet Alagoz, head of the July 15 attempted coup platform, a group formed by lawyers representing many of the victims killed and injured during the attempted coup, said some of the defendants pushed for trial or illegal trials so they could refer to the European Court of Human Rights.
“The court went to extraordinary lengths to make this a fair trial, both at the trial and prosecution levels, as the defendants designed their defense for the European Court of Justice from the start,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There were 475 accused, hundreds of witnesses,” he added. “The court gave everyone space to defend themselves, regardless of the time. The process took three and a half years. “
During the extensive hearings, some defendants cursed the Gulen movement, some criticized their superiors for getting them into trouble, but some of the ringleaders stood firm in their opposition to even the existence of an attempted coup and in their opposition to Mr Erdogan’s government.
“There were defendants who even rejected themselves on the videotapes,” said Alagoz. Some ended up sending an encrypted message of support for Mr Gulen, he added.
“Even in their final remarks, they dared to threaten the court,” he said.