ISTANBUL, Turkey: A court in southwestern Turkey handed down life sentences on Wednesday to 40 men, including senior military officers, for trying to assassinate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the first high-profile verdict against those accused of plotting to overthrow him in a failed coup attempt last year.
The defendants, who included senior military officers and men from Turkish special forces and combat search-and-rescue units, were accused of mounting a helicopter raid on a luxury hotel in the resort town of Marmaris, where Mr. Erdogan was vacationing with his family.
The trial is one of over 40 mass proceedings being conducted around the country against people suspected of participating in the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The plotters used helicopters, tanks and air force jets to bomb institutions, including the Parliament. Two hundred and forty-nine people were killed in the bloody effort to seize power.
The attempt failed when Mr. Erdogan evaded capture and rallied supporters onto the streets to face down the coup. Loyal military officers also resisted.
In the largest mass trials, several hundred military and air force officers stand accused of sending tanks to seize bridges and bases, and of ordering them to open fire on protesters and military jets to bomb targets. Also charged is the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt from his self-imposed exile in the United States.
A former political ally of Mr. Erdogan’s, Mr. Gulen fell out with the president in 2013 over accusations of corruption. Since the coup attempt, thousands of his followers have been imprisoned and Turkey has demanded his extradition from Pennsylvania.
Mr. Gulen was among those indicted in the Marmaris case, but no verdict was reached on the charges against him or two others also being tried in absentia. The judge announced that their trial will continue, news agencies reported.
The Marmaris case is of personal interest to Mr. Erdogan. It is the only one in which he has formally applied to be considered an interested party.
Two police officers were killed in the attack at the resort. Mr. Erdogan has said he received a warning about the coup attempt and left the hotel. He arrived by plane in his home city of Istanbul around the same time the rogue commandos arrived at the Marmaris hotel.
Among those sentenced on Wednesday were Brig. Gen. Gokhan Sonmezates, who was accused of planning the Marmaris attack; Maj. Sukru Seymen of the Special Forces, who led it; and Petty Officer Zekeriya Kuzu, who was found hiding in a cave days after the coup attempt. All were given aggravated life sentences, the toughest penalty under Turkish criminal law.
The death penalty was abolished in 2002 under judicial reforms made by Turkey while negotiating for entry to the European Union, but supporters of Mr. Erdogan and relatives of those who died in the coup attempt have called for it to be reinstated to punish those responsible.
In the Marmaris case, 37 of the 46 defendants were special forces commandos. One officer was acquitted, 40 received life sentences, and two others received lesser sentences: A former military aide to Mr. Erdogan received a sentence of 18 years, and another officer 15 years.
During the trial, which took place in the town of Mugla, some defendants admitted to taking part in the coup attempt but denied trying to assassinate the president. Major Seymen, the commander of the attack, said in testimony on the first day of the trial that the aim was to detain Mr. Erdogan.
“I did participate in a coup, but not an assassination attempt,” he said, according to Turkish press reports. “General Sonmezates gave me the order. The order was to capture the president alive.”
The major expressed his regret that the two police officers were killed in the clash that night.
Some defendants complained that the trial was unfair, and said they were victims of a power struggle.
“Words don’t mean anything here, as we didn’t have the chance to a fair trial,” Reuters reported one defendant, Gokhan Sen, saying. “We are just the grass that elephants trampled on during their fight.”