ANKARA (Reuters) - A retired Turkish general who seized power in 1980 denied on Wednesday any role in the torture of thousands of people after a coup that his co-defendant said saved the nation from chaos.
Kenan Evren, who led a military regime under which thousands were tortured, hundreds sentenced to death and many more disappeared, was speaking by video link from his hospital bed in a trial that highlights the erosion of army power within Turkey.
In an interim judgment, the judge said only questions about coup charges could be made during the proceedings, while the issue of systematic torture was not a matter for the trial, drawing a response from Evren.
“We had nothing to do with torture,” said the former president, looking more alert than on Tuesday when he appeared to fall asleep.
Evren, 95, wore 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.
The 1980 military takeover, Turkey’s third in 20 years, 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 other defendant, retired air force commander General Tahsin Sahinkaya also spoke by video link from hospital.
“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, 87-year-old 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.
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.
More than 300 officers were sentenced to jail in September for plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government a decade ago.
“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.
The court asked Sahinkaya 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.
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