ISTANBUL – Turkish police on Thursday used pepper spray and water cannons to push back hundreds of protesters trying to enter a courthouse where prosecutors were to deliver final arguments in a trial against nearly 300 people accused of plotting to overthrow the government, Turkish media reported.
Inside the courthouse, a panel of judges was forced to interrupt the trial three times over objections by defense lawyers and spectators shouting slogans in support of the defendants, who include prominent journalists, politicians, academics and retired generals, the state-run Anadolu agency and other media said.
The defendants are accused of plotting a series of attacks in a bid to foment chaos and provoke a military coup to bring down Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government, in a manner similar to past coups in Turkey that ousted civilian governments.
They are charged with belonging to an ultranationalist gang, Ergenekon, which takes its name from a legendary valley in Central Asia, believed to be the ancestral homeland of the Turks. Prosecutors say the Ergenekon gang was behind attacks on a newspaper and a courthouse, and plots to kill the prime minister and author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel laureate. The defendants have rejected the accusations.
The trial, now in its fourth year, grew out of an investigation into the seizure of hand grenades at the home of a noncommissioned officer in Istanbul in 2007.
Opponents maintain the accused are victims of a government attempt to muzzle critics and undermine Turkey's secular legacy and say the trial is based on flimsy or fabricated evidence.
The government insists the trial is a step toward democratic reform.
Thousands of people travelled to the courthouse on the outskirts of Istanbul to show solidarity with the suspects, which includes the former Turkish military chief of staff, Ilker Basbug.
"People are being held (in prison) on false evidence," Muharrem Ince, a legislator from Turkey's main opposition party said in an address to protesters outside the court. "This is not a trial, it is (a government) revenge over the (secular) Republic."
In September, more than 300 military officers, including the former air force and navy chiefs, were convicted of separate plots to bring down the government in 2003. Their case is being appealed.