ANKARA — Turkey’s appeals court Wednesday upheld the convictions of scores of top retired military officers over a 2003 coup plot but overturned jail sentences handed to dozens of lower-ranking defendants.
The court in Ankara confirmed an earlier judgment that found the former commanders of the army, navy and air force guilty of plotting to oust Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government and sentenced them to 20 years behind bars.
The appeals court also upheld the acquittal of 34 officers accused of involvement in the plot named “Sledgehammer,” referring to an 2003 army exercise.
And it quashed jail sentences handed down to dozens of lower-ranking officers.
Relatives of those whose convictions were upheld collapsed in tears outside the courtroom after the ruling was announced.
Around 50 protesters — also relatives of the convicted officers — marched to the military headquarters to express their anger at the silence of the General Staff.
“Have you heard the verdicts? Shame on you!” shouted angry protesters as they waved Turkish flags.
In September 2012, a lower court convicted more than 300 military officers for the 2003 plot.
The three “masterminds,” former First Army commander Cetin Dogan, former air force commander Ibrahim Firtina and former naval chief Ozden Ornek initially received life sentences — the heaviest possible since Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004.
But their sentences were commuted to 20 years, on the grounds that their plan to unseat the government fell through “due to reasons beyond their control,” the court ruled.
The so-called Sledgehammer plans first came to light in January 2010, after the liberal Taraf newspaper published documents, diary entries and sound recordings of some of the generals outlining plans to bomb mosques to provoke internal conflict.
The verdict is being seen in Turkey as the latest chapter in a campaign by Erdogan’s government against the once unassailable top brass.
Since coming to power in 2002, the ruling AKP party has reined in the powerful military, which once considered itself the self-appointed guardians of the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
In August, a civilian court imprisoned ex-top general Ilker Basbug for life and handed down lengthy sentences for other retired high-ranking officers, academics, politicians, lawyers and journalists in a landmark verdict.
Critics have repeatedly claimed the trials are part of a government witch-hunt to silence opposition in order to tighten its grip.
But pro-government circles have praised them as a step towards democracy in Turkey, where the army violently overthrew three governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980, as well as pressuring an Islamist-rooted government to relinquish power in 1997.