Turkey plot trial protests
A man walks with a national flag with an image of Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk outside the Silivri jail complex, Aug. 5, 2013. Photo by AP
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Reuters
Protesters carry a banner with the portraits of the leading defendants involved in the trial of ultra-nationalist group Ergenekon, October 20, 2008. Photo by Reuters

A Turkish court on Monday began sentencing nearly 300 defendants accused of plotting to overthrow the government, handing prison sentences of up to 20 years to some and acquitting 21 others in a case that has exposed deep divisions in the country.

The court was announcing the verdicts individually. Ilker Basbug, a retired armed forces commander, was sentenced to life in prison. In addition, three opposition MPs were sentenced to between 12 and 35 years in prison. Verdicts on other high-profile defendants were yet to be announced.

Earlier, security forces fired tear gas in fields around the courthouse in the Silivri jail complex, west of Istanbul, as defendants' supporters gathered to protest against the five-year trial that has become a battle between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and the secularist establishment.

Prosecutors say an alleged network of secular arch-nationalists, code-named Ergenekon, pursued extra-judicial killings and bombings in order to trigger a military coup, an example of the anti-democratic forces which Erdogan says his Islamist-rooted AK Party has fought to stamp out.

Critics, including the main opposition party, have said the charges are trumped up, aimed at stifling opposition and taming the secularist establishment which has long dominated Turkey. They say the judiciary has been subject to political influence in hearing the case.

"This is Erdogan's trial, it is his theatre," Umut Oran, a parliamentarian with the opposition CHP party, told Reuters.

"In the 21st century for a country that wants to become a full member of the European Union, this obvious political trial has no legal basis," he said at the courthouse.

Erdogan has denied interfering in the legal process, stressing the judiciary's independence. But he has criticized the prosecutors handling the case and expressed disquiet at the length of time defendants have been held in custody.

With main access roads shut and protesters' buses prevented from reaching the area, hundreds of the defendants' supporters attempted to cross fields to reach the court and prison complex, but police with riot shields blocked their advance.

"The day will come when the AKP will pay the price," some chanted on the approach road to Silivri, where hundreds of riot police and gendarmes, a paramilitary force responsible for rural security, were on duty.

Among the 275 defendants accused in the case are retired General Basbug and other military officers, politicians, academics and journalists. They deny the charges.