ISTANBUL — A Turkish court sentenced the accused ringleaders and hundreds of others suspected of involvement in the failed 2016 coup to multiple life terms on Thursday, at the culmination of one of the most important mass trials in the plot to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The trial of 475 defendants focused on a group of senior military officers and civilians who set up headquarters at the Akinci air base outside the capital, Ankara, on the night of the coup and ordered warplanes, helicopters and army units to attack and seize key targets. Among the 337 defendants who received multiple life sentences were members of a small core accused of masterminding the coup attempt.
The sentences serve as a capstone to four years of prosecutions in Turkey since the attempted coup, pinning responsibility on those accused as the main perpetrators of a violent attempt at seizing power that was widely rejected by the public. But the government’s sweeping repression of dissent in the aftermath has damaged democracy and rule of law in the country.
During two years of martial law in the aftermath of the coup, the authorities detained some 100,000 people and purged 150,000 public servants from their jobs. The detained included political opponents of the government, Kurdish activists and human rights defenders, among others.
That led many to accuse the government of using the coup as an excuse to crack down more broadly on dissent.
The courts have now concluded almost all of the 289 trials related to the coup attempt and have convicted more than 4,000 people.
Legal professionals have criticized the use of mass trials against thousands accused of even vague involvement in the coup, including convictions handed down to army cadets and others who were ordered out on to the streets that night with little knowledge of what was going on. But supporters of the process point out that it is the first time in a history of military coups that Turkey has conducted extended legal proceedings into what happened.
The coup failed when hundreds of thousands of civilians blocked the streets and units loyal to the government took control. More than 250 people died, many of them police officers and civilians who came under attack from the rogue army units.
Four civilians, Kemal Batmaz, Hakan Cicek, Harun Binis and Nurettin Oruc, were found guilty of masterminding the coup from Akinci base that night. They are accused of following the orders of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher who has become Mr. Erdogan’s bitter rival.
Mr. Gulen, who was in the United States at the time of the coup, and another civilian, Adil Oksuz, who was detained outside the Akinci air base on the morning after the coup but later released, were also indicted in the case. But they were among six defendants whose cases were later separated because they remain at large.
Of the most prominent military commanders sentenced was Brig. Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, commander of the Incirlik air base where U.S. forces are also stationed and from where they fly missions in Iraq and Syria.
The general gave orders for tanker aircraft to supply fuel to Turkish F-16 jets that were conducting bombing raids over Ankara during the coup attempt, according to at least one pilot who was among the defendants.
After the coup collapsed, General Van approached his American counterparts at Incirlik and requested asylum but was refused.
At least 10 pilots who flew over Ankara and bombed locations in the capital, including the Parliament and two police headquarters, were sentenced to multiple counts of life imprisonment. Among the evidence that led to their conviction were audiotapes of the pilots’ conversations with the control tower describing their actions.
Lt. Col. Hakan Karakus, accused of leading the F-16 pilots, and two air force captains, accused of delivering bombing orders to the pilots, also received 79 life sentences each.
Colonel Karakus is the son-in-law of Gen. Akin Ozturk, commander of Turkish Air Force at the time of the coup attempt. General Ozturk was sentenced to multiple life terms in 2019 for his role as a key ringleader in the failed coup.
The trial focused on responsibility for 77 of the more than 250 people who died in the attempted coup. Nineteen of those sentenced received 79 counts of life without parole, one for each of those 77 killed and two more for the charges of trying to subvert the Constitution and assassinate the president.
The published verdict said 291 defendants received life sentences without parole and 46 were sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The court acquitted 80 defendants and the remainder received lesser sentences.
Most of the defendants in the trial denied they had participated in the coup attempt. They claimed they were either following orders or that the entire narrative of a coup attempt was a construct of the Erdogan government, a claim that was also made by Mr. Gulen.
Mr. Gulen and his supporters in the United States have repeatedly denied any involvement in the coup.
But evidence produced at the Akinci base trial was considered some of the most important of all the prosecutions.
Videotape from security cameras at the Akinci air base confirmed the presence of some of the defendants, including some walking the corridors in fatigues and carrying weapons. Pilots in audiotaped conversations described their intention of delivering a blow to the government, reinforcing the prosecution’s case.
Some of the lower-ranked officers testified about the actions of their superiors. The police also detained two of the civilian defendants, Mr. Batmaz and Mr. Binis, near the base on the morning after the coup attempt and dismissed their explanation that they were out looking at real estate.
Relatives of defendants and lawyers representing them have complained of harassment and other obstacles to their work. Defendants complained of torture and mistreatment in the first days after their arrest.
But defendants were allowed to deliver their own statements and reply to accusations during the trial, sometimes taking the stand for hours, even days, to read their testimony. Each defendant was also allowed to give final remarks as were their lawyers.
Mehmet Alagoz, who heads the July 15 Coup Trials Platform, a group founded by lawyers representing many of the victims killed and injured during the coup attempt, said the some of the defendants had been pushing for a mistrial or to expose illegal proceedings so they could take a claim to the European Court of Human Rights.
“The court exerted extraordinary efforts to make this a fair trial both in the court process and at the level of prosecution because the defendants from the beginning were shaping their defense for the European Court,” he said in a telephone interview.
“There were 475 defendants, hundreds of witnesses,” he added. “The court gave room for each one for their defense, regardless of the time. The trial lasted for three and a half years.”
During the exhaustive hearings, some defendants cursed the Gulen movement, some criticized their superiors for leading them into trouble, but some of the ringleaders remained steadfast in their denials of even the existence of a coup plot and in their opposition to Mr. Erdogan’s government.
“There were defendants even rejecting sight of themselves in the videotapes,” Mr. Alagoz said. Some sent a coded message of support for Mr. Gulen at the end, he added.
“Even in their final remarks, they dared threaten the court,” he said.