ANKARA: Former army chief Kenan Evren, 96, who came to symbolise the military’s dominance over Turkish political life, was sentenced to life in jail on Wednesday for leading a 1980 coup that resulted in widespread torture, arrests and deaths.
The sentencing of retired General Evren marked a strong symbolic moment in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s taming of an army that had forced four governments from power in four decades. Hundreds of officers were jailed last year over an alleged plot to topple him.
Mr Evren, who also served as president after three years of military rule, never expressed regret for the coup. He said it saved Turkey from anarchy after thousands were killed in street fighting by militant left-wingers and rightists.
“Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?” he asked in a speech in 1984, defending the hanging of political activists after the army takeover.
Former army and air force chiefs to be stripped of ranks
Fifty people were executed, some 500,000 were arrested, and many disappeared in a country which, bordering the Soviet Union, was on the front line of the Cold War.
Too frail to attend court sessions, Mr Evren was sentenced to life in prison along with former air force chief Tahsin Sahinkaya, 89. Both were accused of setting the stage for an army intervention, then conducting the coup.
Some critics argued nationalist militants or US agencies engineered street clashes to justify army action on September 12, 1980, a charge echoed in a 2012 conspiracy trial dubbed ‘Sledgehammer’. Officers then were accused of plotting to bomb mosques and trigger a conflict with Greece to pave the way for a coup against Mr Erdogan, viewed warily by the military for his Islamist past.
However, a ruling by Turkey’s top court on Wednesday that the rights of 230 officers were violated in the case could open the way now for a retrial and a move to conciliation between prime minister and the generals, nicknamed ‘Pashas’ in a nod to Turkey’s Ottoman past.
Mr Evren and Mr Sahinkaya participated in the hearings via video links from military hospitals in Ankara and Istanbul. Media reports said the two former commanders would be stripped of their ranks as a result of the ruling.
Oral Calislar, a columnist for Radikal newspaper, was jailed for four years and spent another four as a fugitive after his arrest in 1980 for leading a legal left-wing party.
“This is the first time those who have staged a coup have been convicted. We had other coups, but those responsible continued to run the country with impunity,” he said.
The generals were long considered ultimate guarantors of the country’s secular constitution, a constant presence overshadowing political parties and leaders.
Their last successful intervention was in 1997 when they forced Turkey’s first Islamist-led government from office through a combination of political pressure and display of military power but without seizing power outright.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2014