Turkish prosecutors are demanding a sentence of life in prison for a top opponent of the country’s president accused of plotting a coup.
Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric, is accused of attempting to overthrow the government and forming a terrorist organisation. His trial in absentia began on Wednesday in Istanbul.
The trial is the latest move in a campaign against Gülen, an ally-turned-foe of the president who is claimed to have established a “parallel state” in the Turkish judiciary and security services that orchestrated a 2013 corruption investigation that briefly threatened to engulf the Justice and Development party (AKP) government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It comes two months after Erdoğan’s party secured a sweeping victory in November’s parliamentary polls, securing a majority that allows it to continue its single-party rule.
The trial began in Istanbul’s Caglayan court house, in a crowded room packed with defendants, their family members and reporters.
According to a copy of the indictment obtained by the Guardian, there are 69 defendants in the case including Gülen, who is accused of “attempting to overthrow the government or trying to prevent it from fulfilling its duties by use of force and violence”.
Gülenist officials were believed to have been involved in the so-called Sledgehammer trials, which alleged that members of the Turkish armed forces had plotted to overthrow the AKP-led government, as well as the Ergenekon affair trials, in which hundreds of individuals were arrested and charged for allegedly belonging to a clandestine ultranationalist organisation that supposedly had ties with the military and security services and was bent on overthrowing the government.
The split with Erdoğan broke into the open in 2013 and 2014 after news emerged of a corruption investigation targeting AKP members and the president’s inner circle.
Erdoğan described the investigations as essentially a coup attempt and accused Gülen of infiltrating the security forces and judiciary.
The plaintiffs in the trial include Erdoğan, his son Bilal, his son-in-law and energy minister Berat Albayrak, the head of the national intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, and the deputy prime minister, Yalçın Akdoğan.
The defendants’ lawyers began the trial by calling for it to be transferred to the Turkish supreme court in Ankara, saying the Istanbul criminal court did not have jurisdiction to try the case, but were overruled. The case was adjourned until 9 February.
“I estimate that this trial would last around five years,” Nurullah Albayrak, Gülen’s lawyer, told the Guardian outside the courthouse.
“This is a completely political case. If the court would decide today according to current circumstances, there would be conviction certainly, independent [of] what is in in the case file. I believe if the circumstances change then the court would decide according to the case file, and no doubt my client would be acquitted.”