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In failed coup in Turkey, interns face same harsh sentences as generals

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ISTANBUL Photo: 14 Turkeys Air Force Academy graduates celebrating the end of a flight training program with a photo together in front of a fighter jet.

In a few months, all but one of the group would be in jail, accused of joining a 2016 coup attempt that spilled blood in the streets and threw the country into turmoil that it did not know. is not out yet. Last November, 13 of them, the other was not on the base, because they were getting married, were found guilty of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and sentenced to life imprisonment, their military careers and their dreams of piloting F-16s were shattered.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced and severely suppressed the coup attempt, imposing a state of emergency for two years, detaining 100,000 people and expelling 150,000 officials from their jobs. More than 8,000 soldiers were prosecuted for their participation in the insurgency, including more than 600 trainees, cadets and conscripts mostly in their early twenties whose misfortune was to have received orders that night.

Their plight has been largely ignored in Turkey, where the government’s rhetoric against the coup perpetrators is strident and where the families and lawyers of the defendants have been afraid to speak out. But after the 13 were sentenced to life in prison, 12 of them were given life sentences, the harshest form of the life sentence, without parole, some of their families decided to break their silence. .

We didn’t expect them to be acquitted, to be honest, but we did expect them to at least be released, said Kezban Kalin, whose 30-year-old son Alper was among those sentenced. But life made worse?

At first, the trainee pilots and their families had trusted the system, in part because Turkey’s history had been littered with coups and lower-ranking troops had never been held responsible for this. way.

When it comes to a coup, it’s at the generals level, said Ali Kalin, father of Alpers, himself a retired army sergeant. I want to point out the injustice. What did they do? he said interns.

In the summer of 2016, the group had just arrived at Turkeys Akinci Air Base near Ankara, the capital, to begin training on F-16 fighter jets, the pinnacle of 10 military training. years. On July 15, they were called to the base to take an English exam and then were asked to stand by to observe a counterterrorism operation.

But Akinci airbase turned out to be the headquarters of the coup plotters, a group of military and civilians who that evening ordered troops to take control of key installations, planes to bomb Parliament, and a commando unit to capture Mr. Erdogan.

The president escaped capture and, in a cell phone interview with a TV station, called on members of the public to face the coup. By morning, troops loyal to the government had regained control and attacked Akinci air base, arresting many involved.

The trainee pilots were largely unaware of what was going on, according to their statements to investigators and the court, which the government disputed and could not be independently verified.

Their cell phones had been taken, which was normal in a military operation, and the television had been removed from the dining hall where they spent much of the night sitting, they said. They moved chairs, made tea. Some stood guard at the back entrance to the squadron building, and three were sent to the front door and handed over rifles, although the court found they had not used them.

With the base under fire from special forces troops, the trainees were ordered to leave, which most did around 8 a.m., driving their own cars. Alper Kalin arrived home scared and exhausted, but his parents reassured him.

I didn’t think anything would happen to these interns, Ali Kalin said. They did not use any firearms. They weren’t involved in anything, just Akinci’s base was their workplace.

Eleven days later, the group was called back to the base to testify about the events and they were immediately detained. Within hours, their names were on a list of purged military personnel.

It was a bomb for the interns and their families from whom they are still in shock. The pilots have been in detention since. When their parents and siblings tried to find them at police stations and army bases, they were subjected to insults and abuse. Proud parents of famous military leaders, they were suddenly labeled traitors and terrorists.

I did not go to the hearings, said Sumeyra Soylu, 25, whose brother Ali was one of 13 detainees. There was a certain group of people, known as the plaintiffs, who swore and swore loudly against the relatives of the defendants, and he didn’t want us to ever hear them.

Then followed four and a half years of court proceedings, with prosecutors indicting more than 500 defendants in the base Akinci trial. In a courtroom the size of a sports arena in Sincan, outside Ankara, 80 trainee pilots were tried alongside senior commanders and civilians accused of leading the coup. US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen has been accused in absentia of being the mastermind.

Mr Erdogan was among the victims of the events and was represented throughout the trial by his lawyer, Huseyin Aydin, who often clashed with the defendants and their lawyers.

The target of the crime of constitutional violation with which many defendants, including the trainee lieutenants, have been indicted was President Erdogan, Aydin said in written responses to questions from The New York Times.

The trainees were charged with belonging to a terrorist organization, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, murder and attempted murder, since eight civilians died in clashes at the entrance to the base. But the prosecution did not produce any evidence that implicated them in the coup plot or the clashes that occurred, their lawyer said. The lawyer asked not to be named to avoid legal repercussions on himself.

As officer trainees, they are still being trained and can only take orders, not issue them, he said. Akinci’s base was their place of work, so they should not be considered guilty simply for their presence, and their own commanders testified in court that the interns played no role in the events, he said. -he declares. Yet in the end they were convicted, along with everyone else present at the base that night, of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.

The superior commander received the same sentence. The lower-ranking soldier received the same punishment, Ms. Kalin said. How is it possible?

Mr Aydin said the trainee pilots provided support services that night to the coup plotters in place of the usual staff, including transporting the pilots and guarding buildings and captives. There is no doubt that the trainee pilots contributed to the attempted coup, he said, adding that the conviction was not final and had yet to go through the appeal process.

Many Turks opposed the coup. But as the crackdown has continued for more than four years and swept through many unrelated to the events surrounding it, they have grown deeply unhappy with the state of justice.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party, backed Erdogan against coup plotters, but has since accused him of orchestrating a civilian coup when he rallied tens of thousands of political opponents, academics, lawyers and journalists who had nothing to do. with the attempted coup.

Purges in the armed forces were systematic, rooting out entire units and carrying out annual roundups. Only two pilots remain in the Air Force of the Class of 2010, to which the Group of 13 belonged, said a former classmate who was among the purges.

Mr Kalin, who has spent much of his career as a policeman, said: Our confidence in the law, in the courts, in the justice system, in the state, in the government has fallen to zero. Even below zero.

Currently, the purges and prosecutions have included thousands of officers and cadets.

Is it okay to darken the lives of so many people without distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty? said Hatice Ceylan, whose 29-year-old son Burak is one of 13 convicted trainees. They are just children. There are many like my son who rot in prison.

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