Another chapter has opened in the long-drawn tussle between Turkey’s military-backed secularists and Islamists with the sentencing on Monday of a former military chief to life in prison.

General (retired) Ilker Basbug was awarded life-imprisonment for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy to topple the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan, who has been in power since 2002, belongs to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots. Judges assembled at a courthouse in Istanbul’s high-security Silivri prison complex also sentenced three serving parliamentarians from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to jail terms ranging from 12 to 35 years.

The five-year trial, seen by many as an attempt by Turkey’s Islamists to uproot the remnants of the Kemalist era, touched a raw nerve. Supporters of the defendants who had gathered near the courthouse to protest against the trial were met with teargas from the security forces on Monday. “The day will come when the AKP will pay the price,” some chanted spiritedly on the approach road to the prison compound, which was surrounded by a strong force of riot police and gendarmes — a paramilitary force that is meant to enforce rural security.

According to the prosecution, a network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, tried to trigger a military coup by staging extra-judicial killings and bombings. The 275 defendants — 21 of whom were acquitted — included military officers, politicians, academics and journalists.

Critics, including the main opposition party dismissed the trial as “theatre”, aimed at demoralising the secularists, who have for long been the most influential players in Turkey.

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