ANKARA (Reuters) - The trial of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and 72 other people accused of trying to overthrow Turkey’s government began on Tuesday, with the case likely to be expanded to include charges related to an abortive coup in July.
Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and has so far not been extradited to Turkey. He is among those charged with fraud, political and military espionage, as well as the formation and management of a terrorist organization. Journalists and prominent businessmen were also named in the indictment.
The seven jailed defendants appeared before the court on Tuesday, as several of the more senior defendants are believed to have fled abroad after the July 15 coup attempt. Some are not jailed pending trial and may show up at future hearings.
The cleric has repeatedly denied accusations that he instructed followers to infiltrate Turkey’s police, judiciary and armed forces in order to seize control of the state. He has also denied involvement in the coup and condemned it.
The case in the Ankara Fourth High Criminal Court stems from an investigation initiated before the failed coup and therefore does not include charges related to it. However, both state media and lawyers at the courtroom said the hearing would later be broadened to include such charges and more defendants.
More than 240 people died when a group of rogue soldiers
commandeered tanks, helicopters and fighter jets on July 15 in attempt to attack parliament and topple the government.
Turkish authorities on Tuesday dismissed 15,000 more officials, from soldiers and police officers to tax inspectors and midwives, and shut 375 institutions and news outlets alleged to have backed the coup. The widening purge has been condemned by Western allies and human rights groups. [nL8N1DN0E6]
Plaintiffs included lawyers and family members of prominent author and professor Necip Hablemitoglu, who was killed in 2002 before he could complete a book about Gulen’s network.
Also present were lawyers for Ali Tatar, a colonel who committed suicide in 2009 after being targeted by an investigation into the military that prosecutors now say was concocted by Gulen’s followers in the army in an effort to consolidate their power.
Gulen’s lawyer, who was appointed by the Turkish bar association, has withdrawn from case, citing public pressure and the fact that Gulen is still in the United States, where he has lived since 1999.
Ankara has repeatedly called on Washington to hand Gulen over. The United States has said that extraditions are subject to the judicial process and therefore must meet with its standards of evidence.
Editing by David Dolan and Mark Heinrich