Turkey Sentences Two Military Officials to Life in Prison for Coup Role

A Turkish court ruled that two military officials had violated the constitution, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.  ENLARGE
A Turkish court ruled that two military officials had violated the constitution, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.  Photo: Depo Photos/Zuma Press

ISTANBUL—A Turkish court sentenced two military officers to life in prison on Thursday in the first ruling related to the mid-July coup attempt, as authorities widened a nationwide crackdown against the failed putsch’s alleged perpetrators.

Judges in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, ruled that Staff Col. Murat Kocak and Staff Maj. Murat Yilmaz had violated the constitution, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. The defendants requested their acquittal during Thursday’s hearing, rejecting the prosecutor’s charges.

The swift ruling, less than three months after the court accepted the indictment, underscored Turkey’s rush to mete out justice following the traumatizing failed July 15 coup that rocked this North Atlantic Treaty Organization member.

The court decision came amid reminders of the threats Turkey still faces. Shortly after the ruling, a deadly terrorist attack struck the Aegean city of Izmir. As Turkish officials pointed at Kurdish insurgents for that assault, authorities continued their nationwide hunt for the gunman who killed 39 people in Istanbul during a New Year’s attack claimed by Islamic State.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier Thursday that all terrorist organizations—whether coup plotters, Kurdish insurgents or Islamic State militants—are one and the same, vowing to fight all security risks.

“We need to eliminate the threats to our nation at their root,” he said in Ankara.

The government didn’t have an immediate response to the sentencing of the military officers, who would have taken commanding roles in enforcing martial law if the coup had succeeded, prosecutors said.

Authorities also launched nationwide raids on Thursday to detain 380 businessmen in connection with continuing investigations into alleged financial support for U.S.-based Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, who has been charged in absentia with masterminding the coup. Mr. Gulen denies the allegations.

Mr. Erdogan’s government has been ruling by decree since the failed putsch, and parliament voted to extend the nearly six-month-old state of emergency by another three months on Tuesday.

Deploying emergency powers, Turkey launched a massive purge and jailed almost 14,000 policeman and soldiers, including nearly half its military generals, for alleged links to Mr. Gulen’s network or other terrorist-listed organizations.

Officers Kocak and Yilmaz took orders from Mr. Gulen’s network on the night of the coup, the prosecution said in the trial at Erzurum, which is the Pennsylvania-based imam’s birthplace.

The defendants allegedly defied their commanding officers, who warned them the putsch was an illegitimate effort by Mr. Gulen’s followers, according to testimonies by a lieutenant general and a colonel, published by Anadolu news. The two officers attempted to march troops from their barracks but their efforts were peacefully thwarted, their superiors said.

“I’m a soldier, I obey orders,” Col. Kocak allegedly told his commanding general.

At Thursday’s hearing, he told the court there was no evidence tying him to criminal acts and pleaded innocence, according to privately owned Dogan News Agency.

Maj. Yilmaz similarly rejected the charges, saying on the evening of the coup he picnicked with his family at Erzurum’s military headquarters. “I love my homeland, people and flag a lot,” he said. “I believe justice will be served.”

Turkish prosecutors have filed dozens of cases over the past few months against alleged coup plotters and supporters nationwide, putting hundreds of people, mostly soldiers, on trial.

Amid the sweeping crackdown that has depleted the ranks of Turkish security forces, Mr. Erdogan has also launched a cross-border military operation against Islamic State in Syria. The president’s aim is threefold: to oust the jihadist extremists from Turkey’s southern border; carve a safe-zone for Syrian opposition forces seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad; and curb territorial gains by U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara considers terrorists.

Yet Turkey’s involvement in the Middle Eastern conflicts amid turmoil at home has stoked domestic instability, just as Mr. Erdogan pushes for a controversial constitutional amendment that would consolidate executive powers in his office.

Since the failed coup, Turkey has faced mounting security threats, with terrorist attacks by Kurdish insurgents and Islamic State killing more than 150 people.

In one high-profile incident, an off-duty policeman assassinated Russia’s envoy to Ankara, claiming the act as retribution for Moscow’s role in the Syrian conflict. Similarly, Islamic State said the New Year’s attack in Istanbul was in retaliation for Turkey’s operations against the extremist organization in Syria.

Mr. Erdogan defied threats against Turkey on Thursday, pledging to fight terrorism at home and abroad to safeguard national security.

The president, who enjoys widespread popular support, beat back the July putsch by rebellious factions of the military because some generals opposed the uprising, while police and intelligence officials fought the attempt and tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets, heeding Mr. Erdogan’s call to resist the coup.

More than 270 people were killed in the violence, as troops fired on demonstrators, jets bombed parliament and helicopters fired on Mr. Erdogan’s supporters outside the presidential palace.

Write to Emre Peker at emre.peker@wsj.com

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