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Turkey court sentences ex-army chief to life in mass coup trial
by Staff Writers
Silivri, Turkey (AFP) Aug 05, 2013

Basbug: Turkey's moderate ex-army chief
Ankara (AFP) Aug 05, 2013 - Turkey's former army chief Ilker Basbug, the highest-profile defendant convicted in a mass trial over an alleged coup plot, is a NATO-trained career soldier seen as a political moderate.

A staunch defender of the military in its showdown with the Islamic-rooted government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he has branded the trial a "black stain" on the country's history.

The 70-year-old Basbug once led Turkey's military campaign against outlawed Kurdish rebels but later took a conciliatory approach to resolving the three-decade conflict.

The decorated general, who led the army from 2008 to 2010, was sentenced on Monday to life in prison on charges of terrorism after a long-running trial of 275 people accused of plotting to overthrow Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

In a Twitter post on Sunday, he described 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".

University professor Ahmet Insel, author of two books on the Turkish armed forces, said he does not count Basbug among the hardline generals who in 1997 helped bring down the government of the Islamist premier Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan's mentor.

"He is a general who tries to keep the Turkish army in the barracks," Insel said, in a country where the military has carried out three coups since 1960.

He said Basbug was known to lean towards the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), although he has never voiced public support for the party created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and the embodiment of the secular values the army defends.

As early as 2007, Basbug spoke out in defence of the first army officers to be implicated in the alleged coup plot, a group he would later find himself joining in the dock.

"He gave the impression of someone ready to say anything to defend the army," said Insel.

Despite being in charge of the military campaign against Kurdish rebels, observers say Basbug is no hardliner and in fact advocated a moderate approach towards the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) during his tenure as military chief.

"He's no hawk," Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, told AFP in a recent interview.

Born in Afyonkarahisar in western Turkey in 1943, he served in various Turkish army units and held a number of command positions.

He studied at Britain's Army Staff College and NATO Defence College and served at NATO'S Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), according to a NATO biography.

He became a full general in 2002, and was head of the army before taking overall command in August 2008 of Turkey's 515,000-strong military, a force second only to the United States in the NATO alliance.

He held the post until his retirement two years later.

Basbug was arrested in January 2012 accused of leading a terrorist group seeking to topple Erdogan's government.

"The commander of such an army facing charges of forming and leading an armed organisation is really tragicomic," he said in his initial testimony last year. "I always followed the law and the constitution throughout my tenure."

Observers say Basbug's 2008-2010 tenure as military chief coincided with a perceived cooling of the Kurdish conflict, which flared up again when he left office.

"He has made very constructive comments on the Kurdish question," Ulgen said.

In 2009, for example, Basbug urged Ankara to make sure that its Kurdish citizens benefit from "equal opportunities" and to strive to change the perception among Kurds that "they are being victimised".

A Turkish court on Monday sentenced a former army chief to life in prison in a high-profile trial of 275 people accused of plotting against the Islamic-rooted government, a verdict that sparked angry protests in the streets.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters outside the court after the verdicts, which resulted in lengthy prison sentences for most of the accused, including top brass, journalists and opposition lawmakers.

The trial was seen as a key test in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's showdown with secularist and military opponents during his decade-long rule.

Ex-military chief Ilker Basbug, several other army officers as well as reporter Tuncay ÷zkan and lawyer Kemal KerinÁsiz, were all sentenced to life in prison, while 21 people were acquitted.

"The final say belongs to the people," local media quoted Basbug as saying.

"Those who have always stood by ... justice have a clear conscience. I am one of those people."

Fierce clashes erupted between police and about 10,000 protesters near the court complex after the verdicts were announced, an AFP photographer reported.

Protesters threw stones at riot police who responded with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the demonstration, which blocked traffic on the Istanbul-Tekirdag highway near the court.

In Ankara, hundreds of people also took to streets in protest at the court ruling, chanting: "We are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk," a reference to modern Turkey's founder.

Tensions were high outside the high-security tribunal in the town of Silivri, near Istanbul, throughout the hearing.

The defendants faced dozens of charges, ranging from membership of an underground "terrorist organisation" dubbed Ergenekon to arson, illegal weapons possession, and instigating an armed uprising against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002.

Journalist and opposition MP Mustafa Balbay was handed 34 years and eight months, while another opposition deputy Mehmet Haberal had his sentence reduced and walked free given time already served.

Another 15 people were also convicted but immediately released, the private NTV television station said.

"This trial is purely political," Balbay told an audience of MPs and journalists inside the heavily guarded court building ahead of the verdicts.

"Today it's the government which is convicted, not us."

The heavy sentences handed down to journalists sparked criticism from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), accusing European Union hopeful Turkey of violating free speech.

"I am deeply alarmed by today's convictions and harsh sentences that are of unprecedented length and severity in the entire OSCE region," OSCE media freedom representative Dunja Mijatovic said.

"Criminal prosecution of those with dissenting views violates the fundamental human right to free expression and the country's OSCE commitments to develop and protect free media," Mijatovic added.

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

In a Twitter post on Sunday, the former general described the trial as "a black stain on the glorious history of the Turkish state and its army".

The verdicts, which were expected to be appealed, come after Turkey was rocked by mass protests in June that presented Erdogan's government, seen as increasingly authoritarian, with its biggest public challenge since it came to power.

The mass coup plot trial has polarised the country, with Turkey's secular opposition denouncing the lengthy proceedings, which began in 2008, as a witch hunt aimed at silencing government critics.

But pro-government circles have praised the Ergenekon trial as a step towards democracy in Turkey, where the army violently overthrew three governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

Prosecutors said Ergenekon, named after a mythical place in central Asia believed to be the homeland of Turks, was made up of loosely connected branches with an eventual goal of toppling Erdogan's government and restructuring Turkey on a nationalist footing.

The network was uncovered in June 2007 when weapons and explosives were discovered during an anti-terrorist operation in an Istanbul suburb.

The trial is one of a series of cases in which members of the Turkish army, the second biggest in NATO, have faced prosecution for alleged coup plots against an elected government.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc declined to comment on the verdicts on behalf of the government, but personally urged respect for the independent judiciary.


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Turkey court to deliver ruling in high-profile coup trial
Silivri, Turkey (AFP) Aug 05, 2013
A Turkish court was due on Monday to deliver its first ruling in the trial of 275 people including a former army chief accused of plotting to overthrow the country's Islamic-rooted government. Among the defendants in the high-profile case - seen as a key test in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's showdown with secularist and military opponents - are ex-military chief Ilker Basbug and o ... read more

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