ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The remains of former President Turgut Ozal, who led Turkey out of military rule in the 1980s and drove far-reaching economic reform, were exhumed on Tuesday on the orders of prosecutors investigating suspicions of foul play in his death 19 years ago.
Amid tight security, mechanical diggers dug up his grave within a towering mausoleum in an Istanbul cemetery.
Ozal died of heart failure in April 1993 in an Ankara hospital at the age of 65 and while in office. Relatives and associates voiced suspicions he had been poisoned.
A Muslim cleric was present at the exhumation, which lasted 7-1/2 hours. Ozal’s remains were placed in a zinc-coated coffin which was wrapped in the Turkish flag and carried ceremoniously by police officers in formal uniforms to a municipal hearse.
Police on motorcycles escorted the hearse to the forensics institute in an outlying district of the city.
Forensic teams will investigate whether any poisonous substances are present in the remains, which were expected to be returned to Ozal’s family by the weekend, the head of the state forensic medicine institute, Haluk Ince, told reporters.
Turkish political history has been littered with military coups, alleged anti-government plots and extra-judicial killings. A Turkish court is currently trying hundreds of suspects allegedly linked to a nationalist underground network known as “Ergenekon” accused of plotting to overthrow the current government.
Ozal’s brother, Korkut Ozal, said in 2010 he believed Ergenekon had killed his brother. ‘Extrajudicial killings’ were common at that time and have been blamed on shadowy militant forces with ties to the state.
Those suspicious about his death have pointed to efforts which Ozal made to end the conflict with Kurdish militants during his time in office, including securing a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ceasefire shortly before his death.
After a period of military rule following a 1980 coup, Ozal dominated Turkish politics during his period as prime minister from 1983-89. Parliament then elected him president.
Viewed as a visionary who helped pave the way for modern Turkey with free market economic policies, Ozal also gave firm support for the West, supporting the U.S.-led coalition which expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
While prime minister, Ozal survived an assassination attempt by a right-wing gunman in 1988 when he was shot at a party congress, suffering a wounded finger.
Ince said it would take at least two months for the forensic institute to complete its report, after which the findings would be sent to the state prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors decided two weeks ago that Ozal’s remains should be exhumed and an autopsy held after a state supervisory board, acting on the order of President Abdullah Gul, produced a report in June voicing suspicions about his death.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall