Silivri, Turkey - The trial of hundreds of Turkish military officers charged with plotting to overthrow the government was cast into limbo on Friday when the court referred the case to the prosecutor's office to break a deadlock caused by a defence lawyers' boycott.
The judges' move, raising the possibility of the case being transferred to another court, fuelled uncertainty over what may happen to other coup conspiracy trials that have dragged on for years with hundreds of defendants kept in jail without conviction.
The prosecutor's office could return the case to the court in Silivri, on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, in which case the next hearing will be on August 6. But the appeals court could rule that another court should hear the case. Either way, the trial is set to continue for some time.
Prosecutors have demanded 15-20 year jail sentences for the 364 serving and retired officers in the “Sledgehammer” case, which revolves around a 2003 military seminar that prosecutors say was part of a conspiracy to unseat Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government.
The plot allegedly included plans to bomb historic mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece to pave the way for an army takeover. Defendants say the prosecution documents were part of a war game scenario and that other documents are fake.
“The judges decided unanimously to send the case to the Istanbul Chief Prosecutor's Office in order to ask for the institution's opinion on the transfer of the case to another court,” Chief Judge Omer Diken told the court.
Defence lawyers have boycotted closing stages of the trial because of the judges' refusal to hear testimony from expert witnesses aimed at rebutting evidence allegedly gleaned from confiscated computer files.
The defence says forensic tests of CDs presented as prosecution evidence showed they could not have been produced before 2007, four years after the alleged coup plot, but the court refused to take those tests into consideration.
The judge's move was in line with an appeal made by prosecutor Huseyin Kaplan to the court earlier in the day.
“The defence lawyers have been trying to prevent the court from reaching a verdict as they have understood that the verdict will be against their clients - and thus they are trying to extend the trial period,” Kaplan said.
“It is obvious that the trials cannot continue under these circumstances,” he added.
Some 250 of the defendants are already in jail pending a verdict in the plot, allegedly hatched a year after Erdogan, a politician with an Islamist background, was first elected, stirring secularist fears that he would push a religious agenda.
The defendants, including number one suspect retired General Cetin Dogan, deny the accusations and view them as an insult to the military which once intervened regularly in politics, but which has seen its power curtailed by Erdogan's government.
The “Sledgehammer” case has run parallel with a sprawling five-year investigation of alleged secularist plots to overthrow the government by a nationalist network known as “Ergenekon”.
Military officers are also among the hundreds of people, including academics and journalists placed under lengthy pre-trial detention on suspicion of ties to Ergenekon.
Public enthusiasm for the judiciary's moves against the alleged plotters has waned in recent years amid growing suspicion in some quarters that the investigations were being used to stifle political dissent.
Since Erdogan first came to power secularist critics have accused him of having a secret Islamist agenda. Erdogan, whose AK Party embraces nationalists and centre-right elements as well as religious conservatives, rejects the accusations.
The armed forces have toppled four governments since 1960, three through outright coups. In 1997 the military pressured Turkey's first Islamist-led government to quit and subsequently banned the ruling party, which Erdogan had belonged to before founding the AKP. - Reuters