Family members react after a Turkish court convicted three former military… (Associated Press )
BEIRUT — Two former Turkish generals and a retired admiral were among more than 300 ex-officers sentenced to prison terms Friday in a controversial case that highlighted tensions between Turkey's civilian government and the long-powerful military.
The three ex-commanders were convicted in Istanbul, Turkey, of being the ringleaders of a complex plot to "overthrow the government by force" almost a decade ago and were initially sentenced to life in prison, Turkish news reports said. But the court reduced the sentences for the trio to 20 years because the coup was not carried out.
More than 300 other serving and retired officers received varying sentences, news reports said, and 34 were acquitted in the case, which began almost two years ago.
The sentences in the so-called Sledgehammer case — named after a 2003 military exercise — were handed down at a time when most observers agree that the civilian administration has emerged as Turkey's dominant force and that the military's power has been greatly diluted.
Military officers were accused of trying to trigger a coup in an intricate plot that involved bombing a pair of mosques in Istanbul and escalating tension with neighboring Greece, Turkey's historic rival. The alleged coup scheme came to light years later.
The alleged motivation was to foment unrest in a bid to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The accused officers denied the charges and said the alleged conspiracy was no more than a military exercise. The defendants and their families called the evidence fabricated.
But the case underscored deep mistrust between the military — long a dominant force in Turkish governance — and the nation's civilian leadership.
Turkey's military chiefs have viewed themselves as custodians of the nation's secular establishment. Many officers are wary of Erdogan's government and what many view as its Islamist tendencies.
Sledgehammer is one of a number of high-profile cases that have triggered charges that the government is trying to muzzle critics and political opponents. Journalists, academics, lawyers and others have been detained. The government has denied any political motivation.
Receiving 20-year sentences in the case were retired Gens. Cetin Dogan and Halil Ibrahim Firtina, and ex-Adm. Ozden Ornek, alleged masterminds of the coup plot.
Erdogan was reticent to comment on the sentences, noting that appeals are possible.
"All we wish for is a legal decision, but this is not the final decision," Erdogan told reporters.