The accused were charged with crimes against the state, attempting to kill the president, and the deaths of 249 people.
Ankara, Turkey – A key trial of 224 people accused of participating in Turkey’s failed coup attempt three years ago came to a close with 17 top generals handed life sentences.
Those sentenced on Thursday included the former head of the Turkish air force, Akin Ozturk, who allegedly headed the “Peace at Home Council”, which led the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. He was one of the 17 top former military officials who were given 141 “aggravated” life sentences.
Ozturk, who pleaded not guilty, had been at the Ankara Akinci Airbase during the time it was used as a command centre for the coup. The then Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar and other high-ranking military officers were kidnapped and held at the same base during the coup attempt.
Another top military official Gokhan Sahin Sonmezates also stood trial in the 17th High Criminal Court of Ankara after previously being convicted of leading a team tasked with the assassination of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Sonmezates – possibly the only general to admit involvement in the coup – was sentenced with 137 aggravated life imprisonment penalties.
Since Turkey has abolished the death penalty, aggravated life imprisonment is the heaviest sentence delivered in the country.
At Thursday’s hearing, 176 people were sentenced to prison with varying terms of punishment, while 35 others have been freed pending trial and 13 people, including Fethullah Gulen, are still wanted.
The official charges were violating the constitution, using coercion and violence in an attempt to overthrow parliament and the Turkish government, and killing 251 citizens.
Mehmet Algan, a spokesperson for July 15 Foundation, set up to preserve the collective memory of the failed coup and promote national solidarity, said the judges should hand heavy sentences as an example for the future.
“These trials should give a lesson that a coup attempt should never happen again in Turkey,” Algan told Al Jazeera.
The coup attempt led to 251 deaths, many of them unarmed civilians, and injuries to about 2,200 people as tanks and warplanes were used by military personnel to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
Turkey accuses exiled cleric Gulen and his movement for orchestrating the failed coup. The Gulen movement is a hybrid of religion, business and education with millions of followers worldwide.
Since the deadly July 15 coup bid, Turkey has listed the movement as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO).
Commencing in May 2017, the trial concluded on Thursday is the 254th of a total of 289 trials expected to be completed by the end of 2019 dealing with those involved in the coup attempt.
So far nearly 2,000 people, formerly serving in the military, have been sentenced to life imprisonment and up to 1,000 have been handed aggravated life imprisonment, with little chance of early release.
Algan said the families of those killed in the failed coup were pleased with the process of the court.
“The heavy punishments given to the members of FETO give the martyr’s family satisfaction about the sense of justice,” Algan said.
In the crackdown since the coup attempt, Turkey has further arrested people in businesses and media companies with alleged ties to FETO, as well as fired thousands of civil servant workers including teachers and academics.
Turkey has been calling for the extradition of Gulen from the United States since the 2016 failed coup, though the request has been rejected citing a lack of judicial evidence.
Gulen initially travelled to the US in 1999 for medical treatment and remained, now in Pennsylvania, as Turkey accused him of trying to overthrow the government.
As the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Gulen and his movement’s members became political allies of AKP, enabling them to rise to considerable power in civil service and military.
A rift became evident after 2013 when Gulen instigated a corruption probe into AKP, leading the ruling party to announce the movement was trying to bring down the Turkish government.
A statement released by the July 15 Foundation today congratulated the court on a “tremendous moment” in which “bloodthirsty murderers are accounted for“.
It further stated they would continue to fight for justice for the martyr’s families until the last FETO member, presumably Gulen himself, stood trial.
“We will follow and support the struggle for the devil of Pennsylvania to account for justice,” the statement said.