The main trial concerning the July 15, 2016 coup attempt by military infiltrators of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) concluded Thursday with aggravated life sentences for 127 defendants and life sentences for 23 others.
It has been more than two years since over 200 defendants, from generals to colonels who switched their military uniforms to casual suits, were brought to a massive courtroom in the capital Ankara for the “çatı” (umbrella) trial. Reviewing thousands of pages of indictments, security camera footage, images and the accounts of witness after witness, the court handed down prison terms to 211 defendants and ordered a separate trial for 13 defendants at large. The verdict in this most significant trial over the putsch bid that killed 251 people is the harshest and probably most tangible of coup trials in a country accustomed to them since 1960.
The trial is not the largest in terms of the number of defendants, 224 in total, but was being closely watched as it focuses on leaders of the putschists, including former Air Force Commander Akın Öztürk, who was accused of leading the putschists’ “Peace At Home Council.” Öztürk was among 18 defendants who were handed down 141 instances of aggravated life sentences, for 139 murders their actions directly caused, as well as for “violating constitutional order” and serving FETÖ. The terrorist group is known for its widespread infiltration of the army, law enforcement, the judiciary and bureaucracy. It first attempted to overthrow the government in 2013 with its infiltrators in the judiciary and the Turkish National Police. It failed, and the group faced increased scrutiny.
When news broke that the military was preparing to launch a mass purge of FETÖ-linked officers in August 2016, the group moved to prevent it with the coup attempt.
Strong public resistance ultimately stopped the coup, and most of those involved in the coup attempt were arrested. FETÖ’s leader Fetullah Gülen, however, and 12 others, mostly civilian members of the terrorist group, remain at large. Birol Kurubaş, an “imam” or handler for FETÖ’s military infiltrators, was among the few civilians sentenced in Thursday’s trial.
Tens of thousands of people were detained or arrested following the coup attempt, and a barrage of trials were launched against FETÖ, both for its role in the attempt and other crimes.
No chance for parole
The 17th High Criminal Court handed down aggravated life imprisonment varying from one instance to 141 instances for 127 defendants while 23 others were sentenced to life. Three defendants were sentenced to 20 years, while 24 others were handed down prison terms up to 15 years. Thirty-five others were acquitted.
Aggravated prison term means the defendants will not be eligible for parole or early release and multiple instances of the heavy sentence literally mean they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Both the courtroom and its courtyard were packed with people who flocked to the Sincan Prison Complex, home to both a massive prison for hundreds of coup attempt suspects and convicts and a spacious courtroom specifically built for coup trials. Families of those killed by putschists, people injured in attacks by coup suspects, lawmakers from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and activists arrived early Thursday at the courtroom. Relatives of some victims tried to enter the courthouse but police, which took strict security measures in the complex, did not allow them to do so.
All defendants except fugitives had wrapped up their defenses in earlier hearings in two years of the trial that started in May 2017, and Chief Judge Oğuz Dik started reading the verdict before noon for all defendants.
The court charged 127 defendants with violation of the constitutional order, attempting to assassinate the president, murder, attempted murder and restricting freedoms, while others were sentenced to more lenient prison term for aiding the coup plotters and membership in a terrorist organization, FETÖ. Those who were acquitted were mostly low-ranking officers, including the trial’s only female defendant, Kübra Yavuz, a first lieutenant. Some defendants were also technically acquitted in this case as they were already sentenced to multiple instances of aggravated life sentences in other trials related to the coup attempt.
The trial was originally known in Turkish as the “Genelkurmay Çatı” trial. Genelkurmay here means Office of the Chief of General Staff, the army’s headquarters in the capital Ankara. It was there the coup attempt first started. Just hours before the coup attempt started unfolding all across Turkey, top military brass were in a meeting in the office to evaluate a report provided by the National Intelligence Agency. The office, a vast building in downtown Ankara, however, also had FETÖ’s infiltrators, including those serving closest to then Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, such as his aide Levent Türkkan. Putschists, who originally planned to stage the coup later at night or in the early hours of July 16, 2016, decided to move at once upon hearing the meeting. Around 10:00 p.m., Special Forces soldiers working for putschists stormed the office, subduing any officers opposing them. Hulusi Akar was among the high-ranking officers of the army who were held hostage by putschists inside the army headquarters before they were taken to an air base where they would be held for hours by putschists. Hearing the news of a coup attempt, a crowd of civilians gathered outside army headquarters in an unprecedented bid to confront the putschists, and several were killed when putschists opened fire on crowds. Some civilians managed to enter the heavily guarded headquarters but were killed inside by putschists who only surrendered when police officers and anti-coup military forces surrounded the building. Eleven civilians confronting the putschists were killed outside the Office of Chief of General Staff. Bülent Aydın, an officer who was serving as bodyguard of Land Forces commander Salih Zeki Çolak at the time of the coup attempt, was killed by putschists just outside the main entrance of the Office when he tried to resist putschists’ attempt to abduct Çolak.
Prosecutors prepared a 2,581-page indictment against defendants on March 3, 2017. Key defendants in the trial are Akın Öztürk and generals İlhan Talu, Mehmet Dişli, Mehmet Partigöç, Sinan Sürer, colonels Cemil Turhan, Doğan Öztürk, Orhan Yıkılkan, Osman Kardal and Ramazan Gözel. Apart from Öztürk, all were inside army headquarters until the early hours of July 16, overseeing the coup attempt.
A mammoth process
The trial was a meticulous procedure and a mammoth process for the sheer number of defendants and examination of what transpired at the army headquarters during the coup attempt. It took 236 hearings over two years before the conclusion. Seven clerks worked to decipher about 2,500 hours of digital evidence. The court heard 235 eyewitnesses, from civilians to Hulusi Akar, throughout the trial where 2,386 people, from families of those slain by putschists to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were plaintiffs.
It is also viewed as the first comprehensive coup attempt trial to wrap up, while another trial where more than 400 defendants are being tried for incidents at Akıncı Air Base, the command center of putschists in Ankara, is still underway. It also remains the only significant trial of a string of coups that haunted Turkey since 1960, to be concluded with tangible sentences for all those involved. Perpetrators of the 1960 coup got away unpunished, while two generals who led the 1980 coup died shortly after they were sentenced to life. The majority of military officers involved in the 1997 coup were handed down prison terms, but they were not jailed while an appeals process is still underway.
Key defendants in the trial
Akın Öztürk, the former chief of the Turkish Air Forces and former member of the Supreme Military Council, was responsible for the planned coup’s military branch. Öztürk was at Akıncı Air Base during the night of the coup attempt while then Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar was being held hostage at the base. Öztürk claimed he was in Akıncı to convince putschists to end the attempt. Öztürk’s son-in-law, Hakan Karakuş, a fighter jet pilot, has also been jailed for joining the coup attempt with airstrikes targeting civilians.
Former Brig. Gen. Mehmet Partigöç, who served as head of the General Staff Personal, Planning and Administration Department, was among the leading putschists. It was his orders to military units across Turkey that alerted pro-coup troops everywhere that the coup was underway and urged them to join the attempt. The investigation of Partigöç found that he actively took part in meetings between July 6 and July 9 led by Adil Öksüz, a senior, fugitive FETÖ member accused of planning the coup attempt on behalf of Fetullah Gülen.
Mehmet Dişli is the pro-coup general who tried to convince Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar to join the putschists and ordered his abduction when the latter refused.
The general, who was the head of the strategy department at army headquarters before the coup attempt, is accused of orchestrating the abduction of Hulusi Akar, who was released hours later when the coup bid was quelled. “Sir, the operation began. We will round up everyone. Brigades and battalions are mobilized. You will see this soon,” he told Akar.
Although he was not sentenced in Thursday’s trial, Fetullah Gülen is the prime suspect in all of the coup attempt trials. The former preacher gained a cult following over decades with his movement disguised as a religious organization.
Gülen is accused of moving to seize power when the state started to crack down against his followers in the aftermath of the foiled coup attempts in 2013. Gülen currently resides in Pennsylvania in the United States.
Turkey has repeatedly sought his extradition.
28 trials on coup attempt left, hundreds convicted
A total of 261 trials out of 289 over the 2016 coup attempt have concluded since the first coup trials started in late 2016. Twenty-eight trials are expected to wrap up by the end of this year.
Figures compiled by Anadolu Agency (AA) show 3,239 defendants were convicted and jailed. Among them were 1,053 who were sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment and 978 who were sentenced to life. Another 1,208 defendants were handed down prison terms between one to 20 years in trials across the country in three years. After a short pause for a holiday break, Turkish courts are resuming the trials of 1,626 defendants linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) this month. New hearings are being held in 26 trials in nine cities on FETÖ and its 2016 coup attempt. Nine trials are about the coup attempt, while the rest are related to other crimes the group was involved in. A total of 1,002 defendants will be tried in hearings related to the putsch bid. A smaller group of defendants, including some military school cadets who were unknowingly pushed into the coup by their superiors, were acquitted in the trials.
Today, a verdict is expected to be announced in the trial over putschists’ takeover of the Naval Command in Kocaeli, a northwestern city. Thirty-five defendants are being tried and six of them were jailed while others were released with judiciary control earlier or remain at large. Among those jailed before the trial are former admiral Tezcan Kızılelma who was convicted in a case involving putschists’ attempt to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the putsch bid. Kızılelma and five others face aggravated life imprisonment.
More often than not, defendants cling to outright denial despite prosecutors supplying the courts with evidence such as security camera footage of the putschists firing on anti-coup civilians and accounts of eyewitnesses. Legal experts say that defendants are trying to prolong the trials and take their cases to international courts where they believe they have a chance of acquittal.
Reactions to verdict: Minister hails ‘deserved’ punishment
Apart from disapproval over acquittals, the verdict was widely welcomed by the public. Social media users hailed it, as “a fitting end for traitors,” while Justice Minister Abdülhamid Gül said it has been a fair trial in line with international and local regulations and laws.
Gül told reporters after the verdict was announced that the ruling was “what defendants deserved under Turkish laws.” “The constitution they tried to remove was the basis for their trial,” Gül said.
“It is a historical verdict. It is a day when putschists are tried and accounted for what they have attempted to do to democracy and national sovereignty in the framework of laws. Turkey is a country that holds putschists to account. No one will be able to remove democracy and the national will; no one will hurt the soul of our martyrs,” Gül said. He pointed out that the independent judiciary issued a ruling based on evidence and that it was up to the judiciary to decide who’d be convicted and who’d be acquitted. “As a member of the Turkish nation, I am personally pleased with the verdict,” Gül said.
Hüseyin Aydın, the lawyer who represented the plaintiff, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the trial said the verdict “largely met our expectations,” adding that he “thought differently than the judges on acquittals of some defendants.” Aydın said there would be an appeal process and a detailed ruling would be announced in the coming days. “We will take this matter to the appeals court after the detailed ruling is issued,” he said, referring to acquittals. Tarık Şebik, who heads an association of anti-coup activists whose members rallied outside the courthouse during Thursday’s trial, said they would file a lawsuit for harsher sentences for some defendants who got away with lenient prison terms. He said they closely followed the hearings and were satisfied with the process. “Defendants tested the patience of the families of victims with hours of uninterrupted testimonies. The judiciary was really meticulous in every aspect and rather than issuing a collective punishment, it shed light on every shred of evidence implicating or acquitting the defendants,” he said.