ANKARA (Reuters) - A former Turkish general on trial over a 1980 coup that resulted in mass arrests and executions told a court by video link from hospital he would do the same again today if as an officer he saw Turkey facing the same violence and disorder.
The trial of Kenan Evren, 95, whose eight years in power put an indelible stamp on Turkey, highlights the waning influence of an army that carried out three coups in twenty years and was long widely supported as a final check against the encroachment of militant islam and leftist and right-wing militancy.
“We did what was right on that day and we would do the same thing again today if it happened again,” he told the court, reading from a statement as his hands and lips trembled.
“I have given account of September 12 to the great Turkish nation. Only history can judge me after this,” he said, dressed in a dark jumper, a sheet pulled up to his chest.
A court judge was at his side and at one point called for a break so that Evren could be given his regular medicine.
Evren toppled a government struggling to deal with widespread street violence between leftist and right-wing groups that killed thousands. He led a military regime under which thousands were tortured, hundreds sentenced to death and many more disappeared.
“We had nothing to do with torture,” said the former president, looking more alert than on Tuesday when he appeared to fall asleep.
The 1980 military takeover in which virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned, still haunts the nation. The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is in the process of revising an authoritarian constitution inherited from army rule.
“The judiciary does not have the authority to try me and my comrades in arms,” Evren said, referring to legal steps which the coup leaders took to ensure immunity from prosecution in the 1982 constitution.
Constitutional reforms approved last year paved the way for the prosecution of Evren and the other surviving junta leader, retired air force commander General Tahsin Sahinkaya.
The prosecution of Sahinkaya and Evren, who governed as President into the late 1980s, illustrates how far Erdogan’s government has brought the military to heel in the last decade.
Victims’ lawyers say the generals should be treated no differently to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Both were forced to appear in court, one on a bed behind bars, the other in a wheelchair.
Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has implemented reforms which have pushed the once-dominant secularist generals out of politics, their prestige eroded by a series of military conspiracy trials.
“Expectations are very high. I hope there is a beneficial outcome,” Erdogan told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday when asked about the case.
More than 300 officers were sentenced to jail in September for plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government a decade ago.
Hundreds more face trial for a separate alleged coup plot in which violence and killings of public figures would be used to trigger an army takeover.
Sahinkaya, 87, also made his defense by video link from hospital.
The court asked him questions about the decision-making process in the coup and whether the United States was informed about or gave approval for it. He declined to answer.
Turkey, a NATO member, was a front-line state in the Cold War era and there is a commonly held view among Turks that CIA agents helped stir political violence in order to pave the way for the military takeover. It remains a factor in many Turks’ abiding mistrust of the United States.
Sahinkaya’s defense was similar to Evren‘s.
“The armed forces fulfilled their duty to the Turkish nation,” he said in a strong voice. “The National Security Council at the time had acted within the constitution.”
Also sitting up in bed in a dark-colored top with a white sheet pulled up over his body, Sahinkaya read from a statement and said he would refuse to answer any questions.
“September 12 was a historical event, only history can judge historical events. I do not accept being designated as a defendant,” he said from a military hospital in Istanbul.
Evren has said 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.
Many Turkish secularists broadly supported the reining in of the army, but argue that coup conspiracy trials have been used as a pretext to round up scores of the government’s political opponents and create a climate of fear.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton