March 7, 2014 / 8:20 PM / in 4 years

Turkey's former army chief freed from prison

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Former army chief Ilker Basbug was released from a life sentence following a court decision on Friday, adding to uncertainty over the fate of court cases trying coup plots against Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

The decision to release the former general came after Thursday’s constitutional court ruling that Basbug’s incarceration for his alleged role in the ‘Ergenekon’ conspiracy to overthrow the government violated his rights, as the court trying him had failed to publish a detailed verdict on the case.

Basbug was released from Silivri prison near Istanbul where he had been held for 26 months in connection with the Ergenekon case, a trial which helped tame Turkey’s once all-powerful military.

Speaking in Silivri outside Istanbul in front of scores of supporters waving red Turkish flags, cheering and chanting, an emotional Basbug recalled his anger and shock that the head of the Turkish armed forces was being remanded in custody as the leader of a terrorist group.

“Those who acted with hatred and revenge kept us here for 26 months. They stole 26 months from my life,” he said.

Basbug’s release could be a precedent for more than 200 other defendants jailed over the Ergenekon affair.

Pro-secular demonstrators, one of them holding a poster of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk in the background, react as they wait for the release of former army chief Ilker Basbug outside Silivri prison complex near Istanbul March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

“This verdict is very important, but unfortunately we were only now able to correct the injustice...after more than two years’ imprisonment,” Basbug’s lawyer Ilkay Sezer told reporters outside the Istanbul court house.

“There are many more people in jails who are suffering severe health problems and who have been victims of these courts. I hope that, as soon as possible, their cases will also be resolved with release orders.”

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The five-year trial, which reached a verdict last August, was key to a decade-long battle between Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party and a secularist elite that had led modern Turkey from its foundation in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan is now engaged in a power struggle with a former ally, U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of using influence in the judiciary and police to orchestrate a corruption investigation targeting the government. Gulen denies this.

Erdogan is widely believed to have relied heavily on Gulen’s influence in breaking the power of the army, which carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced an Islamist-led government from power in 1997.

In a 20-minute speech, Basbug called for Turkey to examine the Ergenekon trial, which crystallized the military’s fall from power.

“If the Turkish Republic wants to become a state of law an answer must be found to this and those who created this project must be brought before the court and tried justly,” he said.

Writing by Gareth Jones and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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