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Landmark case

April 4, 2012

More than 30 years after the 1980 military coup that unseated Turkey's government, a court in the Turkish capital of Ankara has began hearing a case against the two surviving generals.

Soldiers disperse demontrators in Ankara streets 300 meters from the parliament few days before a a coup in this Sept. 1980 photo
Image: AP

He has no regrets: that's the message conveyed during preliminary questioning by retired general Kenan Evren, a former head of Turkey's military. "Parliament was not functioning. Up to 20 people were being killed - daily," Evren, who imposed martial law, dissolved parliament and prohibited all political parties, said in defense of the military takeover on September 12, 1980.

At the time, he justified the putsch with the violent conflicts between factions on the left and right that claimed more than 5,000 lives. Evren said the military had to intervene to restore security and the state's authority in Turkey. The military staged three coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 - but the 1980 coup was the bloodiest of them all. More than 650,000 people were arrested and some 50 people were executed.

The putsch was the "biggest assassination" in Turkey's political history, says Ertugrul Kürkcü, a member of the Kurdish BDP party who at the time had already spent many years in jail for his leftist political convictions.

The coup derailed democracy

For more than 30 years, many in Turkey feared the rebels would never be held responsible as the constitution introduced in the aftermath granted them lifelong immunity from criminal proceedings.

But in a referendum in 2010 called by the moderate Islamist governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's citizens voted for an amendment to the constitution that lifted that immunity.

The constitutional change made it possible to bring to trial the two surviving generals and leaders of the coup: Chief of Army Staff Kenan Evren and the former head of the country's air force, Tahsin Sahinkaya.

Turkish ex-general Kenan Evren
A frail old man today, Kenan Evren didn't appear in courtImage: picture alliance/UPI

The prosecution has demanded life sentences. Selçuk Kozagacli, a lawyer and chairman of an association of "Modern Lawyers" in Turkey, does not have high hopes, however. "Obviously, these two generals, both over 90 years old, won't show up in court. They might have to be questioned via telephone conference," he said.

Should an expert opinion show that questioning is not possible due to poor health, the court will wait until the generals' health has improved, he said: "That means they will either die or the trial is dropped or - and that's not very likely - they feel better and can be questioned."

That can take years, the lawyer said. "Since they are very old anyway, there won't be a life sentence," Kozagacli said. "It's likely they won't spend a single day in prison."

A symbolic case

Convicting rebel generals, at least symbolically, could be a sign the country is trying to come to terms with a dark chapter in its history. Turgut Tarhanli, a human rights expert and legal academic at Bilgi University in Istanbul, told DW the trial is an important step, but it is not sufficient. Dealing with the past entails more than a legal ruling, he said: "What is even more important is an extensive renewal of the system and for that, you need political will."

Tarhanli said everyone who followed the military's orders, the entire state apparatus, should be held accountable. A credible shift is only possible if Turkey "dissociates itself from the rebels' intellectual, legal and political mentality - and that is not the case, " he warned.

Leaders of the 1980 military coup in Turkey go on trial # 04.04.2012 14 Uhr # Turk 12c # Journal Englisch

The opposite is true, according to Kürkcü, who said the military regime's legacy continues.

"Political parties still have to clear at least 10 percent of the vote; legislation on political parties is unchanged," Kürkcü said. "Establishing associations, unions or foundations in Turkey is still a highly difficult undertaking."

In addition, the large number of imprisoned journalists shows to what extent the freedom of opinion is suppressed in the country, Kürkcü added: "Nowhere do I see signs of democracy."

Debating a new constitution

"Why should we regard this present phase as bringing about great change when things we criticized back then still exist," Kozagacli of the Modern Lawyers Association said, adding that Turkey bans newspapers and the government takes a tough stance against the opposition.

Oct. 29, 1980 photo of the leaders of Sept.12 Military coup, from left to right, Adm. Nejat Tumer, Gen. Nurettin Ersin, Gen. Gen. Kenan Evren, Gen. Tahsin Sahinkaya and Gen. Sedat Celasun salute during the Republic Day ceremony at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey
The 'coup constitution' is still in power in TurkeyImage: dapd

Of course, Turkey's constitution is a significant part of the coup's legacy.

While it has been amended several times over the past years, the document remains to be the "coup constitution." The government, along with all parties voted into parliament, is working on a new civilian constitution. But Kozagacli is doubtful: a new constitution would have to take into account the needs of workers, students, minorities, women, homosexuals and other groups discriminated against - "otherwise, it wouldn't be new."

Author: Basak Özay/ db
Editor: Sean Sinico