ANKARA: Families wait to enter the Sincan Penal Institution at the 4th Heavy Penal Court near Ankara yesterday. A Turkish court handed down verdicts to nearly 500 suspects in one of the main trials stemming from the bloody 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. – AFP

ANKARA: A Turkish court jailed more than 300 former pilots and other suspects for life in a mass trial stemming from a bloody 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim preacher who was once an Erdogan ally, is accused of ordering the failed putsch. His movement has been proscribed as a terrorist group by Ankara, but the 79-year-old denies all charges.

A total of 251 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in what has turned into the defining moment of Erdogan's rule and contemporary Turkish politics. The chaotic attempt was swiftly followed by a fierce government crackdown spanning years and resulting in tens of thousands of arrests. Turkey's largest courtroom was packed with dozens of security personnel and the presiding judge ordered one protesting defendant to "Sit down!" several times before reading the verdict.

He issued multiple life sentences to 27 disgruntled air force pilots who bombed the capital Ankara and civilians who orchestrated the coup attempt from inside the Akinci military base near the capital. Court documents subsequently obtained by AFP showed 337 defendants handed life sentences for murder, violating the constitutional order and attempting to assassinate Erdogan. Sixty suspects were given jail sentences of various lengths while 75 were acquitted.

'Justice has been served'
"Justice has been served," Ufuk Yegin, who represents a victims' families association, told AFP. "It was a very important trial for the Turkish judicial system and for the country," added Muaz Ergezen, another lawyer for the victims. "It is a trial that will go down in history." The then chief of staff general Hulusi Akar-now the defense minister-and other top commanders were held hostage at the military base overnight before their rescue on the morning of July 16, 2016. F-16 fighter jets struck the parliament building, the road near the presidential palace and the headquarters of the special forces and the Ankara police.

Erdogan was on vacation in southern Turkey at the time. The bombs killed 68 people in the capital and injured more than 200. Nine civilians also died trying to stop the plotters at the entrance to the base. Gulen, Adil Oksuz-a theology lecturer who officials claim was a key coordinator of what was happening on the ground-and four others are being tried in absentia. Oksuz was detained shortly after the coup bid but released later and is now on the run.

2,800 life sentences
Yesterday's verdict culminates a trial that began in August 2017 involving nearly 500 suspects. Businessman Kemal Batmaz, accused of assisting Oksuz, was among dozens of defendants handed multiple aggravated life sentences for playing leading roles in Erdogan's attempted overthrow. An aggravated life sentence has tougher terms of detention and replaced the death penalty after it was abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey's drive to join the European Union. The putsch bid was stamped out quickly, but its legacy still haunts Turkey. A fierce government crackdown that followed has muzzled the media and seen tens of thousands arrested in nationwide raids.

More than 100,000 public sector employees, including teachers and judges, were sacked or suspended because of their suspected links to Gulen. These arrests continue, although they are less sweeping. Despite the large number of suspects, a separate coup-related trial is even bigger, focusing on the presidential guard's activities and involving 521 suspects. Ten of a total 289 trials into the failed overthrow of Erdogan are still under way, state news agency Anadolu reported. More than 2,800 people have been jailed for life, with judges convicting nearly 4,500 suspects since July 2016.- AFP