Turkey’s landmark trial of the two surviving leaders of the 1980 military takeover began on Wednesday at an Ankara court, more than three decades after the army seized power.
Turkey’s 94-year-old former general Kenan Evren and his co-conspirator Tahsin Sahinkaya, 86, are charged with ousting the civilian government on September 12, 1980. The pair are absent from the trial due to their poor health.
Hundreds of demonstrators, mostly made up of left-wing political parties, staged a protest in front of the courthouse, chanting slogans demanding justice for the victims of the coup and brandishing banners.
“This case is not abandoned,” one of the banners read. “Those who resisted will have the final say.”
A small child waved a banner apparently revealing that his grandfather was a victim of the coup: “Coup leaders, listen to me! My name is Umut (Hope). I will not abandon my grandfather.”
A 56-year-old victim of the 1980 coup, Ali Imer, said he was arrested on September 12.
“I was jailed for four years for membership of a left-wing political party. I had been tortured for 87 days,” he told AFP. “They threatened to rape my wife if I refused to speak. I was given electro-shock.”
Several parliamentarians also joined the protest.
“This is a landmark case for Turkey’s recent history, but it shouldn’t be superficial,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, lawmaker from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“Not only Evren and Sahinkaya, but also those who ordered the torture should be tried,” he said.
The military, which has long seen itself as the guarantor of secularism in Turkey, staged three coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 as well as pressuring an Islamist-rooted government to relinquish power in 1997.
But the 1980 coup was the bloodiest of them all. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, about 250,000 were charged, 50 were executed, dozens more were tortured to death and tens of thousands were exiled.
“The 1980 coup derailed democracy and ushered in restrictions on rights and freedoms still in evidence in Turkey today,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, on Wednesday.
“This trial offers an important opportunity to deliver justice for the gross human rights violations that followed the coup — most notably, mass torture and deaths in custody, which amount to crimes against humanity under the present Turkish Penal Code.”
The trial of Evren and Sahinkaya is seen as another episode in the current Islamist-rooted government’s campaign against the once unassailable top brass.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and the Parliament are party to the prosecution as alleged victims of the 1980 coup.
The pair face life imprisonment if convicted of committing crimes against the state — the heaviest punishment available since Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002.
Evren served as Turkey’s seventh president from 1982 to 1989.