TURKEY

36 military officers sentenced to life over FETÖ's 2016 coup attempt

People confront putschist troops commanding tanks outside Office of Chief of General Staff on Jul.15, 2016. The coup attempt was foiled thanks to a strong public resistance.

A court in the northwestern city of Kocaeli handed down life sentences to 36 people, including two admirals, for their roles in the July 15, 2016 coup attempt blamed on military infiltrators of the FETÖ terrorist group

A trial over the July 15, 2016 coup attempt that killed 251 people concluded in the northwestern city of Kocaeli yesterday with 36 defendants given life sentences. The convicted defendants, including two admirals, were members of the Turkish Naval Forces whose command is located in Kocaeli, when soldiers linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) launched a bid to topple the government. Adm. Hayrettin İmren and Adm. Nazmi Ekici were the highest-ranking officers sentenced in yesterday's hearing. Both were sentenced to aggravated life sentences along with 21 others. The court also handed down life sentences to 13 defendants.

Other defendants received lesser prison terms. A separate trial will be held for fugitive defendants.

"I only followed orders," Hayrettin İmren told the court, claiming what he did was not a crime, before the court announced its verdict. He said he did not question orders sent from the Office of the Chief of General Staff. Coup plotters who took over the office and kidnapped then army chief Hulusi Akar had sent martial law orders to all military units in the country and officers like İmren obliged while others refused to follow them and helped an anti-coup resistance.

Defendants were found guilty of taking over the Naval Forces Command as well as a military base under the navy's command. They were also accused of holding former Cmdr. Veysel Kösele and another high-ranking naval officer hostage aboard a naval ship and capturing two admirals who resisted joining the putschists on July 15, 2016. Their takeover of the naval command ended on July 16 when strong public resistance helped police and anti-coup soldiers quell the coup attempt.

İmren had confessed his links to FETÖ in his first testimony one year ago but distanced himself from links to the group in the latest hearing, claiming he acted in line with other putschists' orders. He also has said that he knew "martial law" would be declared on July 15 a few days before the coup attempt and was ordered to "detain" two admirals who opposed him and other putschists.

All trials on the coup attempt are expected to be concluded by the end of this year. Other than yesterday's trial in Kocaeli, 209 other trials on the putsch attempt were wrapped up since the first hearings started two years ago. Eighty trials are still underway, including large-scale cases where hundreds, including leaders of the coup, are being tried. More than 4,000 people are being tried for direct links to the coup attempt while thousands more are being tried and/or will be tried for their connections to the terrorist group. More than 1,700 people have been sentenced to life in concluded trials.

Thousands of people were arrested or detained in the aftermath of the coup attempt. Authorities say infiltrators of FETÖ in the military carried out the coup attempt perpetrated by a group of high-ranking military officers calling themselves the Peace At Home Council. Ankara says the council, instructed by FETÖ leader Fetullah Gülen, planned the coup attempt at a meeting with Adil Öksüz, the fugitive mastermind of the attempt. Öksüz is a point man for Gülen, who is believed to control a large number of military infiltrators.

Defendants in coup cases, mostly those caught red-handed, stuck to denials in their hearings, blaming others for their actions on July 15. Some even claimed it was not them in security camera footage openly showing them attacking anti-coup military officers, much to the chagrin of victims' families watching the trials. Legal experts say that the defendants are seeking to prolong trials as FETÖ keeps their imprisoned followers' hopes high for the possibility of release through messages by Gülen who lives in Pennsylvania in the United States.

FETÖ planted its men and women in every institution - from the army to law enforcement - for decades before it openly declared war against the state with two coup attempts in 2013. Disguised with code names, secretive correspondences and a distinct secular lifestyle worlds away from what FETÖ promotes as religious life, its members were easily able to infiltrate places they ultimately aimed to take over.

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