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General who led 1980 coup in Turkey goes on trial

Halis Ozdemir said that in the first two weeks after his arrest in 1981, he was held in a dark cell that was so small that he could not stand upright.

Halis Ozdemir was arrested and tortured after the 1980 military coup that brought General Kenan Evren to power. The general is going on trial for his role in the takeover.
Halis Ozdemir was arrested and tortured after the 1980 military coup that brought General Kenan Evren to power. The general is going on trial for his role in the takeover.

ISTANBUL // More than 30 years after he was arrested and tortured following a military coup in Turkey, Halis Ozdemir may this week get a chance to meet the man who led the takeover.

As a young man, Mr Ozdemir, now 54, was arrested a few months after the coup of September 12, 1980, and held in an interrogation centre in Ankara before being sent to prison. Tomorrow, Kenan Evren, the coup leader of 1980, goes on trial in Ankara. Mr Ozdemir said he would be in court.

"If I get the chance to ask him a question, it will be: Have you felt remorse for even one day?" Mr Ozdemir said about General Evren, who is 94. Mr Ozdemir held up a folder containing documents of his case that had a strip of cloth glued to its back and sides. "This is the strip they used to blindfold me with," he said. "I will show it to him."

Speaking to The National in Istanbul, Mr Ozdemir said in the first two weeks after his arrest in late January 1981, he was held in a dark cell that was so small that he could not stand upright. Guards beat him and tortured him with the strappado, where a victim is lifted off the ground by a rope tied to his hands behind his back, while a heavy weight is tied to his feet.

Mr Ozdemir is still haunted by the memories of what he went through and by the loss of friends who died in the aftermath of the coup. "This country has seen so much pain," he said, tears appearing in his eyes. He said he wanted Gen Evren to face justice. "This trial comes very late," he said.

A high criminal court in Ankara is scheduled tomorrow to open the trial against Gen Evren and the only other surviving member of the 1980 junta, former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya.

Gen Sahinkaya and Gen Evren, a former chief of general staff who led the group of officers who overthrew the government in 1980 and later became Turkish president, are charged with an attempt to abolish Turkey's constitutional order and could face life in prison.

The trial is a watershed for Turkey, a country that has seen four elected governments pushed out by the military since 1960. "48 hours left until the historic trial," the Milliyet newspaper said on its front page yesterday.

The military's power has been cut back by the government in recent years. Judicial investigations against former coup leaders became possible two years ago when a referendum abolished a clause in the constitution that had shielded ex-generals from prosecution for decades.

Mr Ozdemir said he wanted to become a co-plaintiff in the trial. "I am not doing this because I want to insult the military," he said. "I am doing this so that something like that does not happen again."

Gen Evren has said the coup was necessary to end widespread violence between leftist and right-wing groups in Turkey that had brought the country to the brink of civil war in the late 1970s. Many initially welcomed the intervention because it ended the anarchy on the streets. The military dissolved the government and parliament and had 650,000 people arrested under martial law, according to darbemagdulari.com, a website established by victims of the coup.

There are no official figures about how many people died as a result of the coup, but according to the website, Turkish press reports and records shown by Mr Ozdemir, 50 people were executed, 171 others died under torture, 95 people were shot when they tried to flee, 19 died in a hunger strike and 43 committed suicide in prison. There are also 144 "suspicious deaths", where the cause is disputed.

Mr Ozdemir said he was arrested because he was one of the founders of the Akincilar Dernegi, a non-militant Islamist group. "While I was beaten, I could hear the screams of other people being tortured," he said. Guards forced him to recite the national anthem 1,000 times a day and gave him little food. "One day a soldier gave me a piece of bread that had been thrown away by another soldier. I have never eaten anything so delicious in my life," he said.

After 40 days in the interrogation centre, Mr Ozdemir was put on trial and sentenced to four years in prison for Islamist activities. He spent one and a half years behind bars before being released.According to news reports, Gen Evren has shown no signs of regret. "The country was in a very bad state" before the military takeover, the general was reported to have told prosecutors last year. "I would do the same thing again today."

Asked for his reaction to Gen Evren's reported statement, Mr Ozdemir said the general's fate was in the hands of the Turkish judiciary for now. "Beyond that, I leave you to the justice of Allah."

 

tseibert@thenational.ae