A Turkish court on Thursday sentenced two military officers to life in prison for their alleged roles in last year’s failed coup attempt.
The verdict handed down in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, was the first ruling related to the plot to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last July. Many more trials are expected in the coming months, in what is seen as the biggest legal process in Turkish history.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported the two defendants, Staff Colonel Murat Kocak and Staff Major Murat Yilmaz, were convicted of violating the constitution while acting on orders from Turkish exile Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim imam who has been living in the United States for nearly two decades.
The two former officers denied any involvement and asked to be acquitted.
Separately, Turkish authorities broadened their hunt for alleged coup collaborators Thursday, reportedly detaining nearly 400 businessmen in connection with investigations of financial backing for the coup, reputedly in cooperation with the Gülen network. Among those detained were top executives of the Dogan Group, a major business conglomerate that has substantial news media holdings.
Since July, Turkey’s government has arrested 40,000 people and ousted more than 100,000 civil servants, teachers, judges and others believed to be linked to Gülen or involved in the plot to overthrow Erdogan. The government also has suspended all activities by hundreds of civic groups.
At least 81 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and dozens of media outlets have been closed since the failed coup attempt.
Critics, including Western governments and human rights organizations, have voiced concern that the purge has gone beyond the scope of those suspected of direct involvement in efforts to oust Erdogan, and is also targeting many organizations that oppose Erdogan’s policies.
Gülen, who came to the United States in 1999 and has since sought asylum, once was closely allied with Erdogan, but they split nearly 10 years ago. From his exile headquarters in the state of Pennsylvania, the 75-year-old imam has denied any involvement in the coup attempt.
The Erdogan government has accused Gülen of multiple crimes, allegedly committed on his orders from afar, and has demanded his extradition. US authorities have said they will consider Turkey’s request when full evidence against Gülen is presented and evaluated.