Opponents of the Ergenekon investigation demonstrate with a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Istanbul in 2009.

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Story highlights

Prosecutors say the suspects are part of a covert ultranationalist organization

Daughter of a convicted officer: "This is a grave injustice"

Critics say the trials are politically motivated and aimed at stifling opposition

"I am sad, I am disappointed for Turkey," a lawyer says

CNN  — 

The former head of Turkey’s military was sentenced to life in prison Monday in the controversial Ergenekon case.

CNN Turk reported that Ilker Basbug, a former military chief of staff, and others were sentenced in the lengthy and polarizing court drama. He is the most prominent of hundreds of people accused of trying to overthrow the government.

Along with Basbug, other retired high-ranking military officers, journalists, academics and politicians were sentenced. One military figure was Dursun Cicek. The retired navy colonel also got a life sentence, according to Turkish media.

“This is a grave injustice,” said Irem Cicek, the retired colonel’s daughter. “We will fight against this system. We will resist.”

She added, “I will never forget this court, the names of the prosecutors, the names of the judges. I will never forget or let (them) be forgotten.”

Muharrem Ince, a spokesman for the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, called the sentences hostage-takings.

“Our friends are hostages, they are not arrested,” he said. “They are not convicts.”

The case underscores the divide in Turkey between secularists in the opposition and the military and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented government, dominated by his Justice and Development party.

Prosecutors have accused hundreds of suspects of being part of a covert ultranationalist organization that wants to overthrow the government and sow unrest.

They allege that the group created dozens of websites disseminating propaganda aimed at bringing down Erdogan’s government.

Supporters of the process say the once-dominant military has a half-century history of overthrowing at least four governments in Turkey and meddling in civilian political affairs.

But opponents of the government say the evidence has been fabricated by a government witch hunt intent on weakening and discrediting his secular and military political opposition.

Tensions outside the court

The Ergenekon case had its origin in an investigation that began in 2007 after the discovery of a stash of grenades and bomb-making materials in Istanbul. The name is a reference to a mythical story about the origins of the Turkish people.

The trials have been taking place at the 13th Istanbul High Criminal Court at the Silivri Prison Complex. More than 60 of the 267 suspects have been in detention – in some cases for years – as the court case has slowly proceeded.

Along with military officers, the suspects included journalists, academics, political leaders and lawmakers.

The roads leading to the court have blocked in all directions by security forces. Citizens who traveled from all points of Turkey to witness the court’s verdict had been blocked from getting near the court.

As the court began reading the sentences, police intervened in a crowd of roughly 1,000 people protesting the proceeding. Police tried to disperse crowds with water cannons, paint balls and tear gas. Sparks from tear gas canisters on dry grass started a fire.

One protester who would identify herself only as Sibel said she was at the gathering for two reasons: to protest a lack of justice and to exercise her right of protest.

“Those of us who were here, we had no weapons, nothing. Just my body, that’s my weapon,” she said. “They are treating us like criminals, but it is our constitutional right to protest, and they are not allowing us even that.”

Others were sentenced

Basbug was in charge of Turkey’s military from 2008 to 2010 under Erdogan.

Turkish media reported other sentences, including a life sentence for Dogu Perincek, chairman of the socialist Workers Party.

Others sentenced include a former Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate spokeswoman, Sevgi Erenerol, who got a life sentence; Kemal Guruz, former head of Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, who received a sentence of 13 years; author Ergun Poyraz, 29 years and seven months; Istanbul government official Gurbuz Capan, one year and three months; and academician Umit Sayin, four years.

The military people with life sentences include retired Gens. Muzaffer Tekin and Veli Kucuk and retired Col. Albay Arif Dogan. Oktay Yildirim, a former military member whose alleged possession of grenades started the investigation, got nearly 34 years. A lieutenant, Mehmet Ali Celebi, got more than 16 years.

The wife of Constitutional Court member Osman Paksut got two years and six months.

Others were acquitted, including opposition lawmaker Mehmet Haberal.

“I am very sad, our friends remained here. My heart wants to leave here with my friends. But unfortunately, our country is going through a difficult time. I wish these problems are resolved soon and citizens gain their freedoms back,” he said.

Journalist Tuncay Ozkan also was imprisoned for life. His daughter Nazli was incensed.

“We will not pretend not to see this injustice, to not see how unfair this is. This is just the beginning for us. They will not silence us, and we will prevail.”

Nurperi Sancak, one of Perincek’s attorneys, told CNN that defense lawyers proved their clients don’t belong “to this fictional organization,” a reference to Ergenekon.

“I began representing my clients because I believe that they are not being tried for what they did but because of their political affiliations,” she said. “Right now, in the conclusion of this case, I am sad, I am disappointed for Turkey. Because I know that when the truth comes out about the faked and made-up evidence, that the younger generation will be ashamed.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters that “whether we like it or not, we all have to obey the court’s decision.”

“No one has the privilege to commit a crime. The judiciary made the decision it saw fit. We will all see what the next step brings together. We are not people that are personally happy to see anyone convicted or arrested, but there is a court decision and everyone must respect that,” he said.

CNN’s Gul Tuysuz reported from Istanbul, CNN’s Talia Kayali and Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta.