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Former Turkish president on trial for 1980 coup

Landmark trial of 1980 Turkish coup conspirators begins, charged for being responsble of the executions and arrests of more than a million civilians in the first three years following the coup

AFP , Wednesday 4 Apr 2012
Former Turkish general and president Kenan Evren (Photo: AP)

Retired General Kenan Evren, symbol of an era when the military dominated Turkish politics, went on trial on Wednesday for leading a 1980 coup that shaped the country for three decades until reforms cut back the power of the "Pashas".

Fifty people were executed and half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared in three years of military rule after the coup, Turkey's third in 20 years.

More than 30 years after the 12 September, 1980 military takeover, an Ankara court began hearing the case against 94-year-old Evren, who went on to serve for seven years as president, as well as the other surviving coup architect, former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87.

Thousands of mainly leftist protesters gathered outside the court, waving flags and shouting slogans demanding justice and the prosecution of more than just the coup ring-leaders.

There was also a small group of elderly former officers, thrown out of the army for refusing to take part in the coup.

"This is only a symbolic case," said one of them, former Lieutenant Rahmi Yildirim. "It's not enough to try these two generals. The decision to discharge 1,020 army officers was signed by Kenan Evren himself."

The silver-haired Evren is now frail and he did not appear in court. The prosecutor's office has said it could hear the testimonies of Evren and Sahinkaya via video link. Evren recently underwent intestinal surgery and Turkish media reported on Tuesday that he had also broken an arm.

Evren's trial, unimaginable only a few years ago, will be watched closely by hundreds of military officers, including top serving and retired commanders, now on trial as members of the alleged "Ergenekon" and "Sledgehammer" coup conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

The generals, known widely by their Ottoman title of "Pasha", traditionally saw themselves as the guardians of a secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

They mounted a coup in 1960 that led to the hanging of the prime minister and two other senior ministers, and then staged two more takeovers in 1971 and 1980 to oust governments they saw as a threat to Ataturk's legacy.

Each time the coups restored a revised form of democracy, and as recently as 1997 the army forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government to resign.

For some, the military's constant interventions have stunted the development of a mature political class, while the 1980 coup bequeathed a constitution viewed by many as an additional brake on democratic development.

Some secular military and civilian conservatives also see Erdogan's moves to curb the military, reform the judiciary and rewrite the constitution as a drive towards an Islamic order. Erdogan, first elected to power in 2002, denies such ambitions.

It was a recent constitutional amendment that ended Evren's immunity from prosecution over the coup.

Evren says he does not regret the coup, arguing it restored order after years of chaos in which 5,000 people were killed in street violence between leftist and right-wing groups.

"Should we feed them (those executed after the coup) in prison for years instead of hanging them?" he asked in a speech in 1984, a year after the army restored civilian rule.

On Tuesday, Erdogan's government, the opposition and parliament joined at least 350 individuals and groups applying to be co-plaintiffs in the trial as aggrieved parties, meaning their grievances will be taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase.

Erdogan said the government had decided it should join the long list of those wronged.

"The first and most important injured party of the coups in Turkey have been the governments legitimately representing the nation," Erdogan said in his weekly speech to his parliamentary party on Tuesday. "We will follow the case closely."

Apart from the need to end the killings on the streets, the 1980 coup leaders were also worried by what they saw as a rising Islamist threat to the secular republic following the 1979 Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran.

Turkey remains haunted by those traumatic times, when virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned.

Citing the ruling AK Party's spokesman Huseyin Celik, Turkish newspaper Radikal said on Tuesday the authorities were removing the names of key figures in the 1980 coup and previous ones from schools, streets, stadiums and military barracks "in a coup house-cleaning".

"We need to erase the names of coup plotters from public institutions and from the names of places," Celik said. "They've already been struck from people's hearts."

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