* Court jails more than 300 officers
* Key step in ending army's political sway
* Critics say trial silenced opponents
By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL, Sept 23 The jailing of hundreds of
Turkish army officers including top generals accused of plotting
to topple Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan underscored how far he
has come in gaining control of the country's once all-powerful
But Erdogan, 10 years in power, must grapple with suspicions
among critics and even some sympathisers that he is using this
and other coup investigations to silence opposition as he sets
about taming a militant secularist establishment. Far from
flinching, he may seek more power in a revamped presidency.
The verdict against 325 officers at the end of the 21-month
trial on Friday would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when
generals regularly intervened in policy-making as self-appointed
guardians of Turkish secularism.
Judges in the case, dubbed Sledgehammer, handed down prison
sentences ranging from six to 20 years against the officers for
plotting to wreck Erdogan's rule almost 10 years ago, soon after
his Islamist-rooted party swept to power with the biggest share
of the vote in decades.
Hilmi Ozkok, who was head of the armed forces at the time,
rejected accusations the court's decision was driven by revenge.
"The ruling will serve as a deterrent and has a lesson for
everyone ... in understanding how much Turkey and the rest of
the world has changed," Ozkok told Milliyet newspaper on Sunday.
Turks reading such words from the mouth of the former armed
forces chief will gain a measure of the scale of change since
Erdogan's AK party was first elected in 2002. The generals then
made no secret of their disdain for a man who had served a brief
prison sentence for relgious incitement and had backed a
short-lived Islamist government they eased from power in 1997
When AK was elected for a second term in 2007 with an even
larger margin of victory, an emboldened Erdogan launched a
series of investigations into officers, lawyers, politicians,
journalists and others that exposed several alleged conspiracies
against the government.
The plots consisted of plans to foment unrest and pave the
way for an army takeover. Sledgehammer, a war game scenario
played out at a barracks in Istanbul in March 2003, included
plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict
For many, it was all to easy to believe. Turkey's military,
NATO's second biggest, staged three outright coups between 1960
and 1980 and pressured a fourth government, the first
Islamist-led, from power in 1997.
ENDING 'MILITARY TUTELAGE'
Under Erdogan, a devout Muslim, curbs on religion have been
relaxed. Women are allowed to more freely wear the Islamic
headscarf, alcohol is heavily taxed, and students at religious
high schools are able to more easily attend university.
Journalists complain of pressure to write favourable stories
about the government, and a number of writers are among those
arrested under another plot investigation, "Ergenekon".
"This (Sledgehammer) case is an important step towards
ending the army's political role but it's not enough to stop it
completely," said Sahin Alpay, professor of political science at
Bahcesehir University and a columnist for Zaman, seen as close
to the government.
"Now we need a new constitution and laws that place the army
under civilian supervision and reform military schools to
reflect the values of a liberal democracy," he said.
A new constitution is now under consideration to replace a
restrictive code inherited from the military after a 1980 coup.
Turkey may well emerge from the debate with a presidential
republic and a powerful president in Erdogan.
Alpay acknowledged there were questions about the case with
so many defendants on trial at once, the judges' refusal to
allow in some defence evidence and the lengthy sentences.
A key issue at appeal is likely to be the defence's
inability to submit legal expert testimony that computer
documents submitted as evidence appeared fake.
Defence lawyers said they would appeal the verdict this week
to Turkey's upper court and, if necessary, eventually apply to
the European Court of Human Rights.
Generals Cetin Dogan and Halil Ibrahim Firtina and retired
admiral Ozden Ornek, who were considered Sledgehammer's
ringleaders were given life terms, reduced to 20 years because
the coup plot had failed.
Critics of the government have said the trial was a purge of
the government's opponents in the army's ranks.
"This isn't really a legal case," said Pinar Dogan, Cetin
Dogan's daughter and a lecturer at Harvard University. "It's a
wider operation with powerful forces behind it ... and we see
those with firm secularist beliefs are the ones targeted."
She said her mother Nilgul Dogan, 60, faces three years in
prison in a separate case for planting a rose bush near the
courthouse to protest against the trial.
Others said the case failed to go far enough.
Gultan Kisanak, co-chairwoman of parliament's pro-Kurdish
Peace and Democracy Party, said the indictment did not include
crimes she says were committed in a 28-year long war with the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has killed more than 40,000
"Military tutelage, a tradition of coups, contra-guerrilla
activities, extrajudicial killings and other dark events are all
part of our recent political history," she said.
"While we need a process to confront and reconcile our past,
the government instead opted to settle its own scores."
Sledgehammer is one of a series of trials that has raised
questions about whether the government is using the courts to
silence political opponents.
Others include the "Ergenekon" case, which involves a web of
alleged plots against Turkey's government, and the "KCK" trials
which accuse thousands of Kurdish journalists, academics,
lawyers and others of belonging to the PKK, viewed as a
terrorist group by the United States and Europe for its campaign
of violence for greater autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
The court ruling also has the potential to undermine morale
in the military as it battles the PKK in the heaviest fighting
in more than a decade and faces a growing challenge maintaining
security along its southern border with war-torn Syria.
A hundred or so people gathered near Taksim Square in
central Istanbul to protest the verdict.
"This case was an effort to silence those who defend the
secular republic," said Hanife Kopuz, 55, clutching a cloth
banner of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish
republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
"This may be a turning point, reducing support for the
government. They can't stay in power forever but I fear what
they will leave in their wake," she said.