A Turkish appeals court ruling against military leaders has deepened rifts in Turkish society. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's opponents and supporters are unforgivingly locked against each other.
A long time before the expected verdict on Wednesday morning (09.10.2013), hundreds of people had gathered in front of police barricades around a Turkish appellate court building in Ankara. They carried Turkish flags and banners on which they urged the judges to not become "vicarious criminal agents."
But their efforts were in vain. Shortly after 10 a.m., the media announced from within the cordoned-off courthouse that one of the most important legal cases in the country had been decided just as the protestors had feared. Judges confirmed the convictions of 237 former military personnel who were said to have attempted a military coup against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003. At the same time, the judges also ordered the release of 88 accused from prison.
Game plan 'Sledgehammer'
The cases revolve around the so-called "Sledgehammer" plan, at the time the subject at a meeting of senior officers in Istanbul. According to prosecutors, the strictly secularly oriented military then discussed how they could get rid of Erdogan. Just a few months earlier, Erdogan's Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AK) had been re-elected to govern Turkey. Bombings on mosques in Istanbul were supposedly planned, among other things, to increase tensions within the country and set the stage for the army to carry out a military coup.
Turkish daily "Taraf" shed light onto Sledgehammer in 2010. The state prosecution began to investigate and arrested more and more high-profile military officers. The most prominent among them were former Air Force Chief Ibrahim Firtina, former Navy Commander Özden Örnek, and Cetin Dogan, a retired commander of the First Army, who were responsible for Istanbul's defense. The military officers denied the allegations and said instead that they had discussed potential state threats at the meeting.
Last year, a court in Istanbul sentenced more than 300 Sledgehammer defendants of having apparently participated in a coup attempt. The court's ruling this Wednesday thus also acted as an important signal for other trials likely to come.
More than 200 military personnel, including former Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug, had also been found guilty of coup machinations in another trial this past August. With the current verdict, the chances of the high court dismissing charges against defendants have diminished considerably.
The Sledgehammer case was never a stranger to controversy: Defense and opposition had both accused the prosecutor of falsifying evidence. CDs with allegedly incriminating material contained data from 2005 and 2008 - although the discs were supposedly from 2003. The manipulation was obvious - "even a child could see that," Kazim Yigit Akalin - one of the lawyers - told DW. "Law students in Germany would laugh at this."
But nobody was laughing in Ankara this Wednesday. The secular opposition party CHP spoke of a pre-determined verdict by the AK government. Erdogan's reinvented justice branch would have to carry out its new mission, said CHP spokesman Haluk Koc.
Relatives of the defendants also responded indignantly. According to Turkish media, tears were flowing in the courtroom as the verdicts were read. Angry voices yelled at the judges, "May Allah punish you!"
And Erdogan's opponents' found their perspective confirmed: that the AK government now controls all state institutions, and there are no independent courts that comprise a functional democracy.
The AK, for its part, on Wednesday called for respect of the verdict. Many Erdogan followers still see themselves and their party as targets of undemocratic attacks - a military overthrow had threatened Erdogan's government in 2007. Since 1960, the military hunted down four elected governments from office - some more and some less gently. Wednesday's verdict has strengthened this polarization.