ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Two retired generals who led Turkey's armed forces at the time of an alleged 2003 coup plot told a retrial of hundreds of officers on Monday that they knew of no plans to topple then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
The officers were convicted in 2012 for plotting a coup against Erdogan, now president. The constitutional court quashed their convictions in June, ruling the case against them flawed.
The 2010-2012 "Sledgehammer" trial was a high point in Erdogan's drive to tame an army that for decades had dominated politics. Critics accused him at the time of using the courts to pursue a "witchhunt" against the generals.
In sending senior officers to jail, the case eroded the authority and power of NATO's second biggest army at a time of tensions on the borders with Syria and Iraq. The retrial is seen as an opportunity for the military to repair its image.
General Hilmi Ozkok, head of the armed forces in 2002-2006, told the courtroom he had heard coup plot rumors during his term in office from the media and anonymous letters, but these were not substantiated.
"I did not receive information that a coup plan was made. There were some rumors but they were not serious enough for a case to be opened or investigation launched against anyone," said Ozkok, 74, wearing a dark suit and glasses.
Erdogan, long viewed with suspicion by the army for his roots in political islam, pressed reforms safeguarding democracy against military interference in the years after his AK Party's election in 2002. More recently he has been accused by opponents of authoritarian tendencies and intolerance of dissent.
The two retired generals were giving evidence for the first time. The failure of the initial trial to hear their testimonies was among the reasons cited for overturning the convictions.
Aytac Yalman, ground forces commander at the time of a 2003 military seminar which was central to the prosecution case, told the court:
"I have neither heard of nor tried to prevent, as claimed, such a coup plan. The seminar was held under my orders, but I could not attend," said Yalman, also 74.
Yalman said he and most other high-ranking commanders at the time were busy dealing with plans regarding involvement in the war in Iraq in 2003, when Turkey's parliament ultimately rejected a U.S. request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq.
Turkey's armed forces were long seen as ultimate guardians of the secular republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, carrying out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushing an Islamist-led government from power in 1997.
The alleged plot dates back to months after Erdogan first came to power, and was said to include plans to bomb mosques and trigger a conflict with Greece by shooting down one of Turkey's own warplanes to trigger a military takeover.
Among the 236 defendants at the hearing were chief suspect Cetin Dogan, former head of the prestigious First Army, two retired force commanders and a former general who is now a member of parliament with a nationalist party.
Families of the accused and their lawyers were packed into the 500-seat capacity courthouse with the defendants on the Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.
The constitutional court has ruled unanimously that the mishandling of digital evidence had also violated the convicted officers' rights.
Erdogan, his primacy over the army established, said early this year he was open to the idea of a retrial. Officials had suggested evidence had been manipulated by an Islamic cleric who had been using his influence in the police and judiciary to help Erdogan break the army's power.
Cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan turned bitter rival, denies any involvement in Sledgehammer investigations.
In March, a court ordered the release of a former military chief and other defendants accused of a separate "Ergenekon" plot to topple the government.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton