Court to try 1980 Turkey coup plotters

A photo taken in 1977 shows Turkey's now retired army general and former president Kenan Evren.

Story highlights

  • Turkish court approves indictments in 1980 military coup, Anatolian Agency reports
  • Former army general Kenan Evren and air force chief Tahsin Sahinkaya are named
  • While initially welcomed, Evren's military junta was blamed for human rights abuses
  • The country is still struggling with the coup's aftermath, observers say
Turkey moved one step closer to prosecuting the senior commanders behind a military coup in 1980 when a Turkish court approved on Tuesday a prosecutor's indictment of retired army general and former president Kenan Evren, semi-official Anatolian Agency reported.
Ankara's 12th Heavy Crime Court also announced retired air force chief Tahsin Sahinkaya was included in the indictment.
According to Anatolian, the indictment suggests life imprisonment for Evren and Sahinkaya for allegedly committing "acts against the forces of the state."
Some Turkish media have drawn parallels to the landmark prosecution of Chile's once unassailable military dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Evren, now 94, led the overthrow of the Turkish government when he ordered tanks out into the streets of the capital in the pre-dawn hours of September 12, 1980.
The overthrow brought an end to years of bloody killings between right- and left-wing Turkish militants, and many prominent voices in Turkey and abroad initially welcomed the coup.
A Time magazine cover from the time even featured a "paternalistic portrait of General Evren clasping a collage of the Istanbul skyline in his arms with the caption 'Holding Turkey Together'," according to "Turkey Unveiled, a History of Modern Turkey."
But in the aftermath of the military take-over, accounts of human rights abuses began to emerge. Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown in jail, many of them tortured.
The military junta also disbanded political parties, jailed senior politicians, and sentenced hundreds of people to death.
"September 12th is the mother of all coups in Turkey's history," said Yasemin Congar, columnist and deputy editor of the Turkish daily newspaper "Taraf." "It damaged the whole country and probably caused incurable damage on one whole generation of the youth in this society."
Hugh Pope, co-author of "Turkey Unveiled," said the coup "brought Turkish politics back to the kindergarten."
"[Evren] somehow wanted to force the politicians to be less conflictual, but he did so by dumbing them down to the point that Turkey's political system is still recovering from it," he said. "Unfortunately the consequences of his actions ruined so many people's lives. One has to wonder how Turkey is going to deal with that."
According to an article in the Turkish constitution, which was written by the military junta in 1982, Evren and his fellow officers were protected from prosecution.
But recent constitutional changes drafted and ratified by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party cleared the way for a prosecutor to question Evren at his home last year.
Erdogan's government has also overseen the arrest and trial of dozens of other army generals accused of a much more recent military coup plot, which was never successfully carried out.
According to Anatolian Agency, authorities arrested retired general Hursit Tolon on Tuesday in connection to the more recent plot. And last week, authorities detained retired general Ilker Basbug, who commanded the Turkish armed forces until 2010.
Some critics have called the prosecutions a witch hunt, targeting political opponents of Erdogan's government.
Other argue it has been a vital process to bring the military under the control of elected civilian leaders. Since 1960, the once politically-dominant Turkish armed forces have overthrown four governments.
"Ending the belief of impunity is very, very important," said Congar of 'Taraf' newspaper, which has published many damning reports about the Turkish military in recent years. "It's a huge step, obviously very late. These generals are very old. But it's still symbolically very important for this country."