Three decades after overthrowing a civilian government, they face prosecution that sends a message to the country's influential military.
Turkey's 'Pinochet moment' as 1980 coup generals stand trial
ISTANBUL // A turning point for democracy marking the end of an era of undisputed power for the generals.
That's the verdict of analysts on the decision by a Turkish court to try the leader of a 1980 military coup that overthrew the civilian government.
"It shows that democratisation is on track, that Turkey is on the way to becoming a normal democratic country," Sacit Kayasu, a former Turkish prosecutor who was fired from his post after trying to take the coup leaders to court twelve years ago, said this week. "Up until now, democracy here has not been a normal democracy, but one under military tutelage."
More than 30 years after they seized power on September 12, 1980, the coup leader and retired general Kenan Evren, 94, and former general Tahsin Sahinkaya, 86, are to stand trial in Ankara. The High Criminal Court on Tuesday accepted charges brought by prosecutors after a year-long investigation.
The significance of the indictment is immense in a country where the military has traditionally regarded itself as the true guardian of the state and has pushed four governments from power since 1960. No coup leader has ever faced justice.
"It is a Pinochet moment for Turkey," said Aydin Engin, a former newspaper editor who was detained by the military in the run-up to the coup in 1980. Mr Engin was able to flee to Germany and returned to Turkey in 1991. He said the indictment of the former Chilean coup leader and president Augusto Pinochet by the judiciary in Chile in 2000 had long been a source of shame for Turkey, because the Turkish judiciary was unable to touch people such as Gen Evren.
"Today I can say: 'We may be late, but we did it'," Mr Aydin said. "I am celebrating, my wife and all my friends are celebrating as well."
The 1980 coup was the bloodiest intervention of the military into politics. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, thousands were tortured, and hundreds were killed, among them 50 people sent to the gallows by the junta. The coup left Turkey with a constitution written under military rule that has been blamed for many restrictions of democratic rights in the country and is still in effect today.
But in his questioning by prosecutors last year, Gen Evren defended the coup, according to news reports. "I am not sorry at all. I would do the same thing again," the former general was reported to have told prosecutors.
Gen Evren, who was the chief of general staff at the time of the coup, referred to widespread unrest in the country, with bloody battles between left-wing and right-wing groups and a paralysis of political institutions in Ankara, where parliament repeatedly failed to elect a new president because parties were unable to find a consensus. "Constitutional institutions were in a state where they could not function, the country was paralysed, and in that situation we were forced to take power."
Mr Aydin, the journalist, conceded that many people initially welcomed the coup because it ended street battles that had cost the lives of 30 to 50 people every day. But, he added, the generals used the violence as a mere excuse to topple the government and waited with the takeover until they could be sure that the public was behind them.
The indictment against Gen Evren and Gen Sahinkaya was made possible by a constitutional amendment passed in a referendum in 2010 that abolished a special clause in the constitution that gave coup leaders impunity from prosecution. That clause had prevented the earlier investigation, launched by Mr Kayasu, from going ahead.
Critics of the Islamist-rooted government in Ankara, which itself was threatened with a coup by the secularist military in 2007, say Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is conducting a revenge campaign against the military. More than a hundred officers are being tried for their involvement in several suspected coups.
Last week, Turkey's former chief of general staff, retired general Ilker Basbug, was put into pre-trial detention for his suspected role in anti-government propaganda websites run by the military. This week, Hursit Tolon, another former high-ranking general, was detained because of his suspected involvement in a plot to topple Mr Erdogan.
Mr Kayasu, the former prosecutor, said it was good that Turkey went after high-ranking military officers for suspected wrongdoing. "The process is a healthy one," he said. "It is not revenge, it is a necessity."