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Turkey: Leaders of 2016 coup receive multiple life sentences

Verdicts are the culmination of a trial that began in August 2017 and involved a total of 475 suspects
More than 250 people were killed in Turkey on 15 July 2016 when rogue soldiers commandeered warplanes, helicopters and tanks (Reuters)

A Turkish court has jailed 337 people, including pilots and civilians, for life in one of the largest trials stemming from the bloody 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to a court document obtained by AFP from judicial sources, the defendants were convicted of crimes including murder, violating the constitution and attempting to assassinate the president.

The full verdict is due to be published later on Thursday. The Anadolu state news agency said 365 were already being held in pre-trial detention.

Thursday's verdicts are the culmination of a trial that began in August 2017 and involves a total of 475 suspects, centring around events at the Akinci air force base near Ankara.

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More than 250 people were killed on 15 July 2016 when rogue soldiers commandeered warplanes, helicopters and tanks and sought to take control of state institutions and overthrow the government.

The trial was the highest-profile of dozens of court cases targeting thousands of people accused of involvement in the coup attempt, which Ankara blamed on supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Former air force commander Akin Ozturk and others at the Akinci air base were accused of directing the coup and bombing government buildings, including parliament, and attempting to kill Erdogan.

Turkey's then-military chief and now defence minister, Hulusi Akar, and other commanders were held captive for several hours at the air base on the night of the coup.

'Civilian imams'

The trial, located in the country's largest courtroom inside a prison complex in Sincan, Ankara province, was packed with dozens of security personnel and lawyers.

The presiding judge ordered one protesting defendant to "sit down!" several times before reading the verdict, AFP reported.

Four ringleaders, dubbed "civilian imams" over ties to Gulen's network, were given 79 aggravated life sentences for charges of attempting to assassinate the president, murder, and seeking to overthrow the constitutional order, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

F-16 warplane pilots were also among those given aggravated life sentences - the severest punishment in Turkish courts - meaning there is no possibility of parole, Reuters reported.

The parliament was hit three times by F-16 fighter jets, as was the road near the presidential palace and the headquarters of the special forces and the Ankara police.

"Justice has been served," Ufuk Yegin, who represents a victims' families association, told AFP after the verdict was read.

"We believe the punishments were given in accordance with existing laws."

Gulen denial

Gulen, who was once an ally of Erdogan and has denied any role in the coup, was one of six defendants being tried in absentia. Their dossiers were separated from the main trial, media reports said.

The government declared a state of emergency in Turkey - a Nato member and candidate for European Union membership - after the failed coup and carried out a large-scale crackdown.

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Some 292,000 people have been detained over alleged links to Gulen, nearly 100,000 of them jailed pending trial, Anadolu cited Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as saying.

Around 150,000 civil servants were sacked or suspended after the coup, with some 20,000 expelled from the military. Courts have handed down more than 2,500 life sentences.

Four years on, police operations targeting suspects accused of links to Gulen continue on a regular basis.

Rights groups and Turkey's western allies have voiced alarm over the scale of the crackdown, saying Erdogan has used the coup attempt as a pretext to quash dissent.

The government has said the crackdown was needed given the security challenges which Turkey has faced to root out a network of Gulen supporters deeply embedded in the state apparatus.

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