“I cannot say such a thing [that the trial was unfair]. Because I am not a jurist. But according to my observations as a citizen, the panel of judges acted very carefully in this trial. They listened to the witnesses. The team of experts also did what was necessary. So I cannot say, ‘The trial was unfair',” Özkök said in remarks which appeared in a number of Turkish newspapers on Sunday.
Sledgehammer is a suspected coup plot believed to have been devised in 2003 with the aim of unseating the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government through violent acts. According to the Sledgehammer plan, the military was to systematically foment chaos in society through acts of violence, among which were planned bomb attacks on the Fatih and Beyazıt mosques in İstanbul. The plot allegedly sought to undermine the government to lay the groundwork for a coup d'état. The military, which has overthrown three governments since 1960 and pressured a conservative government to step down in 1997, has denied the existence of such a plan.
The Sledgehammer trial, which began in 2010, was concluded on Friday by the İstanbul 10th High Criminal Court at the 108th hearing of the case. The court handed down 20-year prison sentences to three retired generals who were key suspects in the case.
Former 1st Army Commander retired Gen. Çetin Doğan, former Air Force Commander Gen. Halil İbrahim Fırtına and former Navy Commander Adm. Özden Örnek were initially given life imprisonment but the court said the three would only serve 20-year sentences because they were unsuccessful in their bid to topple the government.
There were 365 suspects, all retired or active duty members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), in the Sledgehammer coup case, 250 of whom were under arrest.
The court's ruling, the first of its kind as coup plotters or perpetrators in Turkey have so far gone unpunished, has drawn severe criticism from the suspects, their relatives and those who claim the trial is a “politically motivated” one. They accused the court of depriving the suspects of a fair trial.
Gen. Özkök, who was in office as the army chief in 2003, said he was not surprised about the court's rulings in the Sledgehammer trial but was very saddened that such a thing has taken place as his former colleagues now face the risk of losing all their personal benefits as members of the military.
“I was not surprised but very saddened. If only such a thing [coup plotting] had not taken place. But there is nothing to do now. At the end of the day, this is what the court decided,” he said.
Concerning the claims that the court's sentences are harsh, he said: “Yes, they are heavy punishments but there is nothing to do. This is what the law says. As far as I know, the judges would either hand down life sentences [to three generals] or rule for their release. Since it was impossible for them to rule for their release, they made a decision in between the two. Since they don't have any ability to reduce the 20-year sentence to 13-14 years, they had to hand down 20-year prison sentences.”
Retired Gen. Engin Alan, War Academies Commander Gen. Bilgin Balanlı, retired Gen. Ergin Saygun, former National Security Council (MGK) Secretary-General Şükrü Sarıışık, retired Gen. Nejat Bek, retired Adm. Ahmet Feyyaz Öğütçü and retired Gen. Süha Tanyeri were also each sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Prosecutors had demanded 15-20 years in prison for the 365 defendants.
The court issued 16-year sentences to 214 suspects, including retired Col. Dursun Çiçek and retired military judge Ahmet Zeki Üçok, in the historic coup trial. Thirty-four officers were acquitted in the case.
“As a soldier, I am very sorry for all of them. I am sorry for the young ones in particular because being a soldier is not like having other jobs. They will lose all of their personal benefits now. It is such a great pity,” Özkök said in further remarks.
If the Supreme Court of Appeals approves the verdicts of the İstanbul court, active and retired military officers, who were convicted in the Sledgehammer case, will be stripped of their ranks, effectively turning into private citizens, their medals will be taken back, their relations with the TSK will be terminated. Active-duty convicts will be able to receive their compensations.
The family members of these military members will no longer be able to use military facilities.
Supreme Court of Appeals is expected to conclude the appeals process of the Sledgehammer trial in one year.
In the meantime, Chief Justice Haşim Kılıç said on Saturday that only if the Supreme Court of Appeals approves the sentences in the Sledgehammer trial, Sledgehammer convicts may file individual petitions at the Constitutional Court for complaints of human rights violations.
The Constitutional Court will start accepting petitions from individual plaintiffs starting today [Monday] as part of changes made to the constitution after a referendum held on Sept. 12, 2010.
In Sunday's papers, Özkök also said time will tell whether the court's ruling in the Sledgehammer trial will be a lesson for both military members and civilians who plan to attempt a coup.
“I hope the necessary lessons will be taken from it for the benefit of our nation,” he added.
Regarding the complaints of the relatives of some suspects, who accused Özkök of not doing much for the benefit of his former colleagues, the former army chief said: “What could I have done? What were they expecting me to do? Everything is clear. The case was referred to the judiciary. Prosecutors carried out an investigation. The witnesses were heard. Judges made their decisions. What can I say?”
Last month, Özkök testified as a witness in the ongoing trial regarding Ergenekon, a shadowy crime network which has alleged links within the state and is suspected of plotting to topple the government.
He said he had warned military officers that the 2003 seminar at which participants allegedly drafted the coup plot targeting the AK Party government “went beyond its aim.”
“The seminar went beyond its intended purpose and I warned my officers about it,” the ex-military chief told the court.
Plotters behind the coup plan strongly denied making preparations for a military takeover after information about the Sledgehammer case made its way to the press in 2010. Retired Gen. Doğan publicly said Sledgehammer was a war game and not a plan to take over the government. Opponents of the Sledgehammer case have claimed that the documents were forged, the coup plan was fabricated and that the records of the 2003 seminar were manipulated to discredit the Turkish military; however, Özkök's testimony revealed that all these allegations are groundless.
Documents belonging to the plan suggest that the 2003 seminar was a “rehearsal” of a military takeover. The documents feature the names of military officers who would take part in the takeover, along with their professional ID numbers. The names of several mayors are also included in the Sledgehammer plan.
Özkök also told the judges that he did not attend the seminar due to his busy schedule, and added: “This [Sledgehammer] seminar was carried out as a dangerous scenario that went beyond its intended aim. It was carried out as though the politicians and political events in question were real. I asked the land forces commander to examine them [documents belonging to the seminar].”
Claims that the prosecution was relying on falsified documents to accuse suspects in the Sledgehammer case were countered once again in July when the General Staff sent the İstanbul 10th High Criminal Court, which heard the Sledgehammer case, authentic documents of the coup plan bearing authentic signatures.
In the meantime, former Land Forces Commander Gen. Aytaç Yalman on Saturday denied claims that he was a secret witness in the Sledgehammer case.
He said he applied to the court many times to be heard as a witness but the court turned him down.
“Taking this into consideration, it is nonsense to claim that a person who served as a land forces commander is a secret witness,” he said.