ANKARA, Turkey – A Turkish court on Friday convicted 330 military officers, including the former air force and navy chiefs, of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-based government in 2003, state television reported, in a case that has helped curtail the military's hold on politics.
A panel of three judges at the court on Istanbul's outskirts initially sentenced former air force chief Ibrahim Firtina, former navy chief Ozden Ornek and former army commander Cetin Dogan to life imprisonment but later reduced the sentence to a 20-year jail term, TRT reported. The three were accused of masterminding the plot.
The court also convicted 327 other active or retired officers for involvement in the conspiracy, sentencing some to as much as 18 years in prison. Thirty-four were acquitted while the case against one was postponed for health reasons.
The officers were expected to appeal the verdict.
The trial of the high-ranking officers -- unconceivable a decade ago -- has helped significantly to tip the balance of power in Turkey in favor of civilian authorities.
Turkey's generals have staged three coups since the 1960s and forced an Islamist government to quit in 1997. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has grown ever more confident with each of its three electoral successes since 2002 and has been drawing reins on the powers of the armed forces which have long seen themselves as the guardians of Turkey's secular traditions.
Erdogan's government has hailed the trial which began in December 2010, and other similar ones as a break with a tradition of impunity and a move toward greater democracy. But the officers' case -- dubbed "Sledgehammer" after the alleged conspiracy -- has been marred by the suspects' long confinement without a verdict and some judicial flaws, including allegations of fabricated evidence. The government's secular critics have denounced the coup plot trials as a ploy to intimidate opponents.
Prosecutors accused the 365 defendants in the trial of plotting to depose Erdogan by triggering turmoil in the country that would have paved the way for a military takeover.
They claimed the plotters, taking part in an army seminar in 2003, drew up plans for a coup which included bombings of mosques, the downing of a Turkish fighter plane and other acts of violence that would have allowed the military to intervene on the pretext of restoring order.
The defendants reject the charges. The military has said officers taking part in the seminar discussed a fictitious scenario involving internal conflict, but that there were no plans for a military coup.