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Turkey frees coup convicts amid political turmoil

Turkey ordered the release of 19 men convicted of plotting a coup, days after an ex-military chief was freed in a case now entwined in a power struggle between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, Reuters reports.

The 19 people, including prominent journalists, lawyers, retired military officers, a convicted gang leader and the killer of a top court judge, were among hundreds convicted in the “Ergenekon” case, which lay at the heart of Erdogan’s drive to break the political power of Turkey’s military.

Cleric Fethullah Gulen is widely believed to have helped Erdogan by using a network of supporters in the judiciary and police to drive the Ergenekon trial forward. But the two men have since fallen out and the government now suggests the defendants may have been unjustly treated.

The latest releases underscore how radically the Erdogan-Gulen feud has altered Turkey’s political landscape.

In emotional comments on emerging from almost six years in jail, journalist Tuncay Ozkan said: “Turkey is today in a very dramatic situation, resembling a country on the edge of a cliff. We cannot leave it in the hands of thieves and murderers.”

Retired General Ilker Basbug, the former chief of Turkey’s armed forces, spoke with similar bitterness about his incarceration when he was released on Friday.

Murat Yetkin, columnist for Hurriyet daily, saw the release as symptomatic of a new political climate stirred by conflict between Erdogan and Gulen. “This new atmosphere seems like it will have further effects on political life as Turkey heads for critical local elections on March 30,” he wrote.

Erdogan’s quarrel with Gulen now poses one of the biggest challenges to his 11-year rule after a series of audio recordings anonymously posted on the Internet purportedly revealing corruption and other malpractices in the government.

Erdogan has placed the blame for the wiretaps on Gulen and his followers, whom he accuses of building a “parallel state” – an ironic echo of Turkey’s “deep state” comprising staunchly secular, nationalist army officers and security personnel at the center of the Ergenekon allegations.

Gulen denies involvement in the wiretaps.

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