ISTANBUL -- Turkey's highest appeals court on Wednesday upheld the convictions of 237 military officers accused of plotting to overthrow the government a decade ago. The case, which has riveted the nation, highlights the power struggle between Turkey's pro-Islamic government and the once powerful military, which sees itself as the defender of Turkey's historically secular state.
In Wednesday's ruling, the Supreme Court upheld 20-year prison sentences handed down in 2012 for the leading defendants in the case, including Cetin Dogan, a former commander of the First Army; Ozden Ornek, a retired admiral; and Ibrahim Firtina, a former air force commander, according to the semiofficial Anatolian News Agency. It also upheld the acquittals of 36 other officers charged in the case.
But the court overturned the convictions of 88 lesser-known defendants who prosecutors said were involved in the so-called Sledgehammer plot. The officers were accused of attending a military seminar in 2003 and plotting to foment unrest -- including bombing mosques and assassinating prominent political figures -- to destabilize and then overthrow the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took power in 2002.
The case originally involved 364 defendants, but after the trial court judges found discrepancies in identifying documents, three of the defendants were either acquitted or had their cases dismissed after conviction.
The case has exposed divisions between members of the country's secular establishment, including the military and its supporters in political, intellectual and media circles, and the governing party of religious conservatives, which has sought to exert its authority since taking power.
Legal experts contend that the prosecution was tarnished by overzealousness, and the defense has asserted that evidence was fabricated. But supporters of the prosecution's case said it was a necessary step to establish civilian dominance over a once untouchable military that has staged three coups against civilian governments.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers said documents had been manipulated by the prosecution; some referred to companies and organizations that did not exist in 2003 or were backdated to incriminate some of the accused.
The Supreme Court dismissed nearly 20 reports by Turkish and international forensic experts proving that the documents had been forged, according to Huseyin Ersoz, a lawyer for General Dogan.
Mr. Ersoz said Wednesday that the credibility of the judiciary in Turkey had been severely damaged. "The Supreme Court upheld a verdict based on documents that had been certified as forgeries," he said. "It is just the latest example of a politicized verdict that hurts the credibility and impartiality of the judiciary in Turkey."
He said his client would appeal to the nation's Constitutional Court, claiming violations of the right to a fair trial.
In August, an Istanbul court sentenced dozens of prominent military figures, politicians, journalists and academics for participating in a similar plot to overthrow Mr. Erdogan's government. The long-running court case, named Ergenekon for a mythical valley, also pointed to the deep divisions between Islamists and secularists.
Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Dan Bilefsky from Paris.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 9, 2013 9:06 PM