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Sledgehammer coup trial opens in Turkey

The trial of nearly 200 military personnel on charges of plotting a 2003 coup opened just outside of Istanbul on Thursday.

A statue of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is seen next to a national flag

The military is at odds with Turkey's ruling party

The trial of nearly 200 former Turkish military officers began in a court just outside of Istanbul early on Thursday over an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Prosecutors accuse the 196 officers, including the former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force, of colluding in 2003 to carry out a coup plot nicknamed "Sledgehammer." Some of the officers could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

The plot first came to light in January of this year after documents detailing the plan were leaked to the liberal newspaper Taraf.

"This is one of the most important trials of this country's history," Yasemin Congar, deputy editor of Taraf told Deutsche Welle. She sees the trial as crucial in democratizing the country.

"If the prosecutors manage to go to the end of this, Turkey will be definitely be more democratic and it will be a more secure, and more transparent country," she added.

All of those implicated have denied the charges, saying the much of the evidence is made up of training documents for hypothetical scenarios.

The case, which is expected to take years to complete, could heighten tensions between Turkey's secular military and the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has its roots in Islam.

Anti-AK Party plot

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The military is accused of trying to topple Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Sledgehammer plot is said to have included the bombing of two major mosques in Istanbul, an attack on a military museum by people disguised as Islamic fundamentalists and the provocation of military tensions with neighboring Greece.

The military has seized power in Turkey in three seperate coups since 1960. The army, which sees itself as the guardian of the secular state, has been deeply suspicious of the Islamic-rooted current government ever since it came to power

The alleged goal of the attacks would have been to throw the country into a state of emergency, allowing the military to seize control of government from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party.

The once-powerful military has seen its influence wane in recent years, particularly under AK Party rule.

The string of arrests that followed the plot allegations marked the first time in Turkey's history that such high-ranking officers have faced imprisonment.

EU critical of legal handling

The European Union - in its latest progress report - welcomed government efforts in Turkey to bring the army under civilian control.

But Brussels has voiced concerns over the way the cases are being handled. Critics point to the measures used by the prosecutors, including the wide-scale use of phone tapping, the indiscriminate use of searches and the fact that defendants are not allowed to see the evidence against them.

"There is no guarantee that once you remove a military shadow over the civilian system, there will be happy end for democracy in any society," political scientist and columnist Nuray Mert told Deutsche Welle.

"On contrary, there are many depressing examples of replacement of one kind of authoritarian regime by another kind or style of authoritarian regime," she said.

Such concerns were heightened when the minister of justice replaced one of the judges in the trial just two days before the hearings began. The minister said an explanation would be given later, but critics claim this is further evidence of political interference in the case.

Whatever the outcome of the sledgehammer trial, it seems set to further entrench the deep political polarization in Turkish society .

Author: Dorian Jones, Darren Mara (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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