Turkey's mass coup conspiracy trial nearing end
ISTANBUL - The mass trial of almost 300 people accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamist-rooted government of Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan entered its closing stages on Thursday as defence lawyers make their final arguments before a Turkish court.
A verdict in the four-year long case involving 275 defendants, including Turkey's former military chief Ilker Basbug and other army officers as well as lawyers, academics and journalists, is expected in the coming weeks.
The defendants face dozens of charges, ranging from membership in an underground "terrorist organisation" known as Ergenekon and instigating an armed uprising against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002.
Hundreds of people tried to barge into the courtroom in the heavily-guarded Silivri prison complex near Istanbul in a show of protest over the Ergenekon trial, which is seen as a major test in Erdogan's showdown with secularist and military opponents.
"We are the soldiers of Ataturk!" the protesters chanted, referring to the founder of secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose legacy has been fiercely defended by the staunchly secular army.
In a separate case dubbed "Sledgehammer", more than 300 hundred active and retired army officers, including three former generals, received prison sentences of up to 20 years in September over a 2003 military exercise which the court said was an undercover coup plot.
Pro-government circles have praised the Ergenekon trial as a step towards democracy in Turkey, where the army violently overthrew three governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
In 1997, it pressured the then Islamic-leaning prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the political mentor of the current premier, into stepping down in what was popularly dubbed a "post-modern coup" strategy.
However critics have branded the trial a witch-hunt to silence the opposition. It is one of a series of cases in which members of the Turkish army, the second biggest in NATO, have faced prosecution for alleged coup plots against an elected government.