Hundreds clash outside prison in Turkey, protesting mass trial

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Hundreds of protesters clashed with police on Monday outside a prison complex where the mass trial of almost 300 people accused of scheming to topple the elected Turkish government drew to a close.

Police used water cannon and pepper spray to disperse the crowd as demonstrators, including many relatives of the accused and army supporters, tried to breach the security barricade outside the compound in Silivri, a small town on the outskirts of Istanbul.

The 275 defendants of the four-year-long trial stand accused of having ties to an ultranationalist “terrorist network” known as Ergenekon and of trying to instigate an uprising against the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, in power since 2002.

A verdict in the trial involving top military figures, army officers, lawyers, academics and journalists, is expected within weeks as the defense wrapped up its final arguments on Monday.

Pro-government groups have praised the trial as a step toward democracy that will end a tradition of political interference in Turkey, where the once omnipotent army incapacitated four governments in 50 years.

But critics say the case is based on shaky evidence to take “revenge” on the Turkish army, the second biggest in NATO, which made no secret of its dismay for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning rule.

The 2,455-page indictment accuses members of Ergenekon of a string of attacks over several decades, including a shooting at a top Turkish administrative court in 2006 which killed a judge and a grenade attack against opposition Cumhuriyet daily’s Istanbul headquarters.

Both attacks were initially blamed on Islamists, but the state prosecutor believes they were instigated by the then army command with an eventual goal of toppling the AKP government and restructuring Turkey on a nationalist framework.

In a separate case, more than 300 active and retired army officers, including three former generals, received prison sentences of up to 20 years in September after the same court ruled that a military exercise dubbed “Sledgehammer” in 2003 was an undercover coup plot.