ANKARA (Reuters) - 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 September 12, 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.
“The trial will become a very important reason for a change in mindset for our future,” President Abdullah Gul told reporters. “We are living through a period where our political history will serve as a warning.”
The case is a landmark in the steady erosion of military power begun by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as part of democratic reforms aimed at bringing Turkey closer to European Union membership. Until the last decade, the army regularly intervened in politics in moves it said were meant to safeguard the secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from 1923.
Hundreds 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.
The names of hundreds of those killed during military rule were read out through loudspeakers on a nearby bus.
“They are among us!” the crowd shouted after each name, before taking a minute’s silence with their left fists clenched in the air, a reminder of their political allegiance.
“The day will come, the tide will turn, the junta-ists will be called to account,” the crowd then cried.
The nationalist far right also fell foul of military rule and some of their number were outside the court to demonstrate, standing at a distance from the leftists.
“The court issued a death sentence against me, but I served 11 years in prison. I have lived in exile in Germany for 21 years and came back for this case,” said Hasan Gundogdu, a 67-year-old retired manual worker and former right-wing activist.
“Many of our friends were tortured and hanged, they walked towards Allah, and through this walk they never bowed to the junta. We will not bow either until all the junta have been held to account,” he said.
At the time, the coup offered relief for some from the daily street fights between left and ring-wing armed factions, and for years the military was the most popular institution in Turkey. But there is now a growing confidence and will to confront the injustices of the past.
“After September 12, they threw me in a cell with a right-wing kid. When I saw the torture committed against him, I understood it wasn’t a left versus right problem,” Kutlug Ataman, Turkey’s most famous artist, wrote on Twitter.
The silver-haired Evren is now frail and neither he nor Sahinkaya appeared in court on Wednesday due to ill health.
The panel of judges ruled that testimony via a video link from the defendants could not be admitted and said they would announce later whether the indictment could be read in their absence.
In the meantime the court heard statements from the lawyers of the record number of around 500 co-plaintiffs whose grievances will be taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase of the trial. That process could last through Thursday and possibly Friday also.
As the trial opened the judge demanded a larger courtroom after some lawyers were forced to sit in the spectators’ stands, state-run TRT television said. Evren’s lawyer told the court he would not start his defense before order was restored.
Most media were denied access to the courtroom.
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 Erdogan.
The generals, known widely by their Ottoman title of “Pasha”, traditionally saw themselves as the guardians of the secular order. 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 in prison for years instead of hanging them?” he asked in a speech in 1984, referring to those executed after the coup.
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 neighboring Iran.
Turkey remains haunted by those times, when virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned.
Writing by Jonathon Burch and Jon Hemming; Editing by Alistair Lyon