A Turkish appeals court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of leading members of the Turkish military charged with plotting to overthrow the civilian government in Turkey, dismissing claims that fake digital evidence was submitted to the court.
The 9th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals announced its ruling in an appeal of a previous ruling in the Sledgehammer (Balyoz) coup plot trial, upholding convictions of 237 of the defendants, while acquitting 88 of the accused.
In a detailed ruling, the court of appeals confirmed the authenticity of digital evidence presented against defendants in the first trial, saying it was clear that the digital evidence was not tampered with, either by security forces or judicial authorities.
This ruling upheld sentences the İstanbul 10th High Criminal Court pronounced for leading officers accused in the case, such as Çetin Doğan, a retired four-star general and a major figure in the trial; Özden Örnek, a former chief of the Naval Forces; and Halil İbrahim Fırtına, a former chief of the Air Forces. All received 20 year prison sentences. The court of appeals also upheld 18-year prison sentences for other high-profile defendants, including Ergin Saygun and Nejat Bek, both retired four-star generals; and Engin Alan, a retired three-star general.
The convicts, who are expected to appeal to the Constitutional Court, will be stripped of their titles and ranks as required by law and demoted to private.
“[By its verdict,] the Supreme Court of Appeals has confirmed that a complete attempt [for a coup] was carried out,” Ahmet Gündel, a retired prosecutor for the Supreme Court of Appeals, told Today's Zaman.
The court has reversed, based on the evidence presented, the verdicts for 25 suspects, while it did the same for 63 of the suspects, saying that the accused can't be punished as per Article 316/2 of the Turkish Penal Code regarding “complicity to commit a crime.” The 63 suspects, the court said, should have been charged with belonging to a criminal organization instead of charged with plotting a coup. There was not enough evidence against the other 25, according to the ruling. The appeals court upheld the lower court's acquittals of 36 suspects.
According to Gündel, the appeals court's verdict recognizes three important things: First, that there was an attempt to carry out a coup on the basis of the evidence; second, the fact that concrete steps were taken toward the a coup; and third, regarding the incomplete attempt to stage a coup, there was no sign that the plotters had voluntarily given up on the coup attempt.
Speaking along with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at a joint press conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the legal process is yet to be completed.
Doğan, Fırtına and Örnek to serve 15 years in prison
In the case -- which saw 361 people stand trial for attempting to plot a coup -- the defendants have been found guilty of attempting to overthrow the government. Retired four-star generals and admirals Doğan, Örnek and Fırtına, leading figures in the coup plot, will serve 15 years in prison -- three-fourths of the pronounced sentence, as per Turkish law.
Gen. Bilgin Balanlı, who was commander of the War Academies and was retired at the last Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting, and retired three-star general Alan, who is also a deputy from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have been sentenced to 18 years in prison. The court upheld 16-year prison sentences for retired staff colonel Dursun Çiçek and Ahmet Zeki Üçok, a former chief prosecutor of the Turkish Air Force Command.
“We now live in a Turkey in which the pro-coup mindset is on trial,” Mesut Ülker, a strategist and former staff colonel, told Today's Zaman. “I wish the latest verdict of the Supreme Court of Appeals would offer an opportunity to revise the system that produces the tutelary regime mentality,” he added.
As the verdict pronounced by the Court of Appeals represents a final stage in the judicial system, the convicts are said to be individually appealing with the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the penalties are unconstitutional. The convicts need to appeal within 30 days of the announcement of the final verdict. As they will be stripped of their ranks, they will have to return all their medals and military identity cards and will no longer be allowed to enter military facilities.
For Gündel, who believes that the verdict also demonstrates that objections such as deficiency in form in the trial of the convicts are not true, two possibilities lie before MHP deputy Alan in serving his sentence. If Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek presents the court's final verdict regarding Alan to Parliament, then, following voting, Alan would most probably be stripped of his deputy status and will be sent to prison. If the parliamentary spokesperson doesn't submit the court's verdict to Parliament, then Alan may be released from prison to serve as deputy until the end of the present term of Parliament, following which he would serve his prison sentence.
Following the announcement of the verdict, many close relatives of the convicts who attended the trial burst into tears while relatives of those who were acquitted embraced each other in happiness. Some of them chanted slogans such as “Armed forces and the [Turkish] nation hand in hand, fully independent Turkey,” and “We are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk],” a military officer and the founder of the Turkish Republic following Turkey's War of independence.
Nilgün Doğan, the wife of Çetin Doğan, who was sentenced to 20 years, said they would continue to seek justice within and outside of the country. “Çetin Doğan and the others are not guilty,” she said.
Officers held at the Hadımköy Military Prison have harshly criticized, in a written statement, the Sledgehammer case, which they described as the “slander of the century,” saying “this case is the work of a big conspiracy.”
The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) also criticized the court's verdict, maintaining that the Court of Appeals failed to see the fake evidence presented to the court. “Although there were several fake evidence and serious claims about the unreliability of the secret witnesses [who provided statements in the case], the 9th Criminal Chamber ignored everything which violated [the defendants'] right to a fair trial,” CHP spokesman Haluk Koç said at a press conference on Wednesday. The convicts in the case had complained several times that many of the digital evidence submitted against them were fake but the court confirmed in its ruling that the evidence were reliable.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) considers the verdict as an insufficient step to revealing the crimes previously committed in Turkey by the military. Unless the crimes committed by deep state organizations in the east against Kurds are unearthed, all the trials against Ergenekon, a shadowy crime network that has links within the state and which plotted to topple the government, are insufficient, BDP deputy group chairman İdris Baluken said at a press meeting the same day.
The İstanbul 10th High Criminal Court had, on Sept. 21, 2012, convicted over 300 suspects of being involved in a coup plot organized by former 1st Army commander Çetin Doğan. The local court's verdict was appealed and the file was sent to the Supreme Court of Appeals on Feb. 27. Supreme Court of Appeals prosecutors studying the case announced their legal opinion on June 17, advising that the convictions of 258 people be upheld, 67 convictions be reversed, 35 acquittals be upheld and one acquittal be reversed.
Sledgehammer is a coup plot created at a military gathering in 2003. According to the plan, the military was to systematically foment chaos in society through violent acts, among which were planned bomb attacks on the Fatih and Beyazıt mosques in İstanbul.
The plot allegedly sought to undermine the government, laying the groundwork for a military takeover. The suspects were accused of a failed attempt to overthrow the government.
The Sledgehammer documents were the basis of a presentation given by Çetin Doğan during a military conference on March 5-7, 2003 held at the Selimiye barracks. According to the court, the conference, part of a series of regular “War Seminars” in which military officers brainstormed using case studies, was far from a “routine scenario,” and in fact involved a coup d'état plan.
Retired Gen. Doğan, speaking at the Selimiye seminar, reportedly said Article 35, which has recently been amended, of the Internal Service Code gives the military sufficient authority to undertake a coup.