A Turkish court on Monday convicted the country's former military chief of plotting to overthrow the government and sentenced him to life in prison. Retired general Ilker Basbug [personal website, in Turkish; BBC profile] was arrested [JURIST report] in 2012 for his alleged involvement with the Ergenekon [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] network, a secular group suspected of planning to overthrow [JURIST report] the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) [party website, in Turkish]. Basbug was one of some 250 defendants accused of plotting high-profile attacks aimed at sowing chaos in Turkey to prepare the way for a military coup. Prosecutors in the trial maintain that the Ergenekon was behind a series of violent acts, including one in 2006 on a courthouse that killed a judge, that were made to look as though they were carried out by Islamic militants in a bid to create turmoil and provoke a military intervention. At least 16 other defendants were sentenced to life in prison, including 10 retired military officers, while 60 other defendants received sentences ranging from a year to 47 years. At least 21 people were acquitted. The verdicts cap a five-year trial that has generated tension between the country's secular elite and Erdogan's Islamic-oriented AKP.
The case has sparked protests and polarized the country between those who see it as an opportunity to unravel a network of ultra-nationalists and those who believe it is a government attempt to silence the party's opponents and impose Islamic principles [JURIST report], but the government denies any such charge.. On Monday police blocked hundreds of demonstrators from reaching the courthouse in Silivri, 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Istanbul, in a show of solidarity with the defendants. Other high-profile defendants in the case include Mustafa Balbay [JURIST report], the Ankara representative of the Cumhuriyet [media website, in Turkish] newspaper, and Mehmet Haberal, a surgeon and founder of a university in Ankara. Both faced life prison terms, but received sentences of 34 years and 12 years, respectively.