A court in Turkey on Thursday sentenced 475 defendants to lengthy prison terms, in many cases handing down multiple life sentences, in a mass trial for “traitors” accused of participating in the 2016 attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The defendant Erdogan is most eager to put on trial remains elusive, as the United States refuses to extradite alleged coup mastermind Fethullah Gulen, a longtime resident of Pennsylvania. Gulen has vehemently denied any involvement in the incident and the U.S. government has asserted it also has no evidence suggesting he was involved.
Rebellious military officers launched aerial attacks against parliamentary and presidential buildings and, in the tensest moment of the brief conflict, F-16 fighter jets with rebel pilots came very close to shooting down President Erdogan’s plane as he flew into Istanbul. Erdogan’s then-chief of staff Hulusi Akar, now Turkey’s defense minister, was among those held hostage at the Akinci Air Base during the coup attempt. The attacks reportedly killed 68 people in the bombings and over 200 more were injured.
Turkish media reported that 19 of the defendants in the mass trial received 79 life sentences each. The court dispensed over 3,900 years in prison to the defendants; 70 of the defendants were acquitted.
Of the defendants, 25 were military generals. Many of those who received multiple life sentences were high-ranking military officers or fighter pilots. Four of the defendants were described as “civilian imams.” The mass trial has been in progress since August 2017.
Almost 100,000 arrests have been made in connection with the coup attempt since 2016, and at least 150,000 Turkish citizens have been fired from their jobs over suspected links to the Hizmet religious and political group created by Gulen. Erdogan and his officials refer to this group as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO).
“The Turkish judiciary continues to hold the traitors to account. No one should doubt that justice will be served and that law and democracy will win,” proclaimed Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul when the verdicts were announced.
“The terrorists who used the Akıncı Base as a center during the July 15 coup attempt received the punishment they deserved. The betrayal network that rained bombs on the Parliament, the Presidency and our nation was condemned once again by our nation before justice,” agreed Omer Celik, spokesman for the ruling AKP party.
Celik said the “putschist” network behind the coup is “continuing to organize every kind of treachery in various countries to harm Turkey.”
The Associated Press quoted family members who said some of the defendants were wrongfully accused but the court disregarded evidence that would have proved their innocence.
“They are very young, when they were thrown in prison, they were 24 and 25, now they are convicted for life? How do you explain this in the spirit of justice?” asked Busra Taskiran, the fiancee of defendant Yunus Kilicaslan, who was training to be an F-16 pilot at the time of the coup.
“We are not happy with this verdict. We will carry this to the appropriate places,” said the father of another trainee pilot convicted by the court.
The Turkish court convicted several people in absentia, including Fethullah Gulen, whose requested extradition to Turkey was denied by both the Obama and Trump administrations. Gulen denies allegations that he planned the coup from his residence in Pennsylvania.