Turkish court sentences 72 defendants to life in coup bridge trial

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court sentenced 72 defendants to life in prison on Thursday for their role in killing 34 people when rogue soldiers seized control of a suspension bridge in Istanbul two years ago during an attempted coup, state media said.

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The court sentenced the 72 defendants, who included a colonel and major in the Turkish military, for “attempting to destroy constitutional order”. Another 27 defendants were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for helping that effort, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.

Anadolu said they did not accept the charges against them and requested acquittal. Forty-four defendants were acquitted.

The defendants in the case were also originally charged with deliberately killing civilians who heeded a call from President Tayyip Erdogan to challenge the coup plotters after they closed off the bridge across the Bosphorus Strait.

At least 250 people were killed across Turkey, many of them unarmed civilians, when military personnel attempted to topple Erdogan’s government on July 15, 2016, commandeering tanks, warplanes and helicopters and bombing parliament.

The verdicts come as Turkey prepares to commemorate the anniversary of the coup attempt on Sunday, and as Erdogan celebrates an election victory which made him the first holder of an all-powerful executive presidency.

The Istanbul bridge, renamed the “July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge”, was a flashpoint on the night of the coup. Victims included Erol Olcok, an advertiser who ran political campaigns for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his 17-year-old son.

Thirty-four Turkish flags were displayed on the plaintiffs’ side of the courtroom on Thursday as the verdicts were read, representing the 34 people slain on the bridge.

Another Turkish court on Thursday sentenced eight former managers of conglomerate Boydak Holding, once among Turkey’s biggest firms, to lengthy prison terms for links to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric Ankara blames for the failed coup.

Former CEO Memduh Boydak was handed 18 years for leadership of an armed terrorist organization while five managers -- four of them members of the Boydak family -- were sentenced to 7-1/2 years apiece for being members of such organizations.

Turkey has taken control of several financial enterprises accused of ties to Gulen’s network since the failed coup, including Boydak. In total, Turkish authorities have seized or appointed new administrators to 975 companies with assets of 50.3 billion lira ($10.4 billion), according to a May report by Turkey’s Savings and Deposits Insurance Fund (TMSF).

Turkey has detained 160,000 people since the coup attempt in a crackdown targeting soldiers, academics and civil servants suspected of links to Gulen, and dismissed nearly the same number of employees, the U.N. human rights office said in March.

Of those detained, 77,000 have been formally charged and kept in jail during trial, the interior minister said in April.

Erdogan’s critics accuse him of using the failed putsch as a pretext to quash dissent. Turkey says the measures are necessary to combat threats to national security.

Turkish media have been flooded with programs commemorating the thwarting of the coup, with television stations showing footage of soldiers who participated surrendering, stripped of their clothes and weapons, and headscarved women squaring off against tanks in the street.

Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Catherine Evans