Turkey jails 337 for life over 2016 coup

US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who was once an Erdogan ally, is accused of ordering the failed putsch. PHOTO: REUTERS

ANKARA (AFP) - A Turkish court jailed 337 people, including 27 former pilots for life in one of the largest trials stemming from the bloody 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a court document showed.

They were convicted of crimes including murder, violating the constitution and attempting to assassinate the president, according to the document provided by judicial sources before its official release.

Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim preacher who was once an Erdogan ally, is accused of ordering the failed putsch. His movement has been proscribed as a terrorist group by Ankara, although he strongly denies all charges.

A total of 251 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in what has turned into the defining moment of Erdogan's rule and contemporary Turkish politics.

The country's largest courtroom was packed with dozens of security personnel and lawyers and the presiding judge ordered one protesting defendant to "Sit down!" several times before reading the verdict.

He handed down multiple life sentences to disgruntled air force pilots who bombed the capital Ankara and civilians who orchestrated the coup attempt from inside the Akinci military base near the capital.

'Justice has been served'

They were convicted of crimes including murder, attempting to violate the constitutional order and attempting to assassinate Erdogan.

"Justice has been served," Ufuk Yegin, who represents a victims' families association, told AFP after the verdict was read.

"We believe the punishments were given in accordance with existing laws." The then chief of staff general Hulusi Akar - now the defence minister - and other top commanders were held hostage at the military base for one night before their rescue on the morning of July 16.

The Parliament was hit thrice by F-16 fighter jets, as was the road near the presidential palace and the headquarters of the special forces and the Ankara police.

Erdogan was on vacation in southern Turkey at the time.

The bombs killed 68 people in the capital and injured more than 200. Nine civilians also died trying to stop the plotters at the entrance to the base.

Gulen, Adil Oksuz - a theology lecturer whom officials claim was a key coordinator of what was happening on the ground - and four others are being tried in absentia.

Oksuz was detained shortly after the coup bid but released later and is now on the run.

2,500 life sentences

Thursday's verdicts culminates a trial that began in August 2017 and involves a total of 475 suspects.

More of them are expected to be jailed when the full verdict is published, possibly later Thursday.

The Anadolu state news agency said 365 were already being held in pre-trial detention.

Businessman Kemal Batmaz, accused of assisting Oksuz, was among four suspects sentenced to 79 aggravated life sentences over their alleged management of the coup bid.

An aggravated life sentence has tougher terms of detention and replaced the death penalty after it was abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey's drive to join the European Union.

The putsch bid was stamped out quickly, but its legacy still haunts Turkey.

A fierce government crackdown that followed has muzzled the media and seen tens of thousands arrested in nationwide raids.

More than 100,000 public sector employees, including teachers and judges, were sacked or suspended because of their suspected links to Gulen.

These arrests continue, although they are less sweeping.

Despite the large number of suspects, it is not the biggest coup-related trial. Some 521 suspects are on trial in a case focused on the presidential guard's activities.

There have been 289 trials into the failed overthrow of Erdogan and 10 continue, Anadolu reported.

More than 2,500 aggravated and standard life sentences have been issued by Turkish courts, with judges convicting 4,154 coup suspects since July 2016.

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