SILIVRI // Turkey's former army chief and 15 other ex-officers and civilians were jailed for life yesterday for plotting a coup.
A court in Silivri ruled that Gen Ilker Basbug and others formed a secret terrorist organisation called Ergenekon that conspired to topple the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government.
Twenty-one of the 275 accused were acquitted and a further 17 were set free because their sentences were considered served with the time they had spent in pretrial detention.
The court, the 13th chamber of the Istanbul High Court, issued arrest warrants for another 13 who were convicted in their absence.
The others found guilty were jailed for between two and nearly 50 years. They included military officers and former police chiefs, a mafia boss, a former head of the higher education authority, lawyers, trade unionists and journalists.
The verdict is a crucial moment in the power struggle between Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative government and secularist forces led by the military.
It is the first time a civilian court has imposed life sentences on officers for a coup attempt. Critics say the five-year trial was an attempt by Mr Erdogan's ruling party to solidify its power against the military, which has unseated four governments since 1960 and publicly threatened to remove Mr Erdogan in 2007.
The government has clipped much of the military's political clout since then. Yesterday's verdict came less than a year after 330 officers were jailed by a military court for a separate coup plot.
In a defiant message, Gen Basbug said there were doubts about the independence of the court.
"The nation will have the last say," he said on his website. "And the nation will not be lied to and deceived."
The court of appeals in Ankara will review the verdicts.
Gen Basbug was convicted of "trying to destroy the government of the Turkish republic by using force". Ten other former military commanders and officers and five civilians also received life sentences, including the journalist Tuncay Ozkan.
It took judge Hasan Huseyin Ozese more than two hours to read out the verdicts.
Groups of protesters clashed with police blocking roads leading to the specially built courtroom in a prison complex outside Silivri, near Istanbul. Police used tear gas to drive away the protesters.
"We are ready to die for our country," said a woman, who said she had come to support Gen Basbug and others. "Our resistance will continue," she said.
Thousands of police officers in riot gear and armoured vehicles cordoned off the prison complex as helicopters circled overhead.
Prosecutors say Ergenekon is an organisation of the "deep state", a term for nationalist members of the security forces and bureaucracy who were thought to have been behind several political killings in Turkey in past decades.
One of those convicted yesterday and sentenced to 47 years and three months, former colonel Arif Dogan, is the founder of a special forces group within the military accused of being behind deadly attacks on Kurds in recent years.
Critics of Mr Erdogan say the government used the trial to silence dissent.
"There is a plan by the AKP behind this," protester Sadik Cenes said. The AKP, Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, has been in power since 2002. "The trial has not been just: nothing is just in Turkey at the moment."
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the biggest opposition party in Turkey's parliament, said the trial could not be seen as an expression of the rule of law because the special courts dealing with political crimes were "under political orders".
But the government called on Turks to respect the verdicts.
"No one has the privilege to commit crimes," said Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman. "Whether we all like the decision or not, we are obliged to obey it."
Egemen Bagis, the minister in charge of Turkey's accession talks with the European Union, said the court had made it clear once and for all that there had been a militant group bent on bringing down the government.
"Today, it has been officially accepted that Ergenekon was a terrorist organisation," he said. "We as a nation are seeing a historic day in the name of democracy and the rule of law."