General Kenan Evren, who went on to serve as Turkey’s president, is set to go on trial for his role in leading a 1980 coup that shaped the country until reforms cut back the power of the generals.
An Ankara court will begin hearing the case on Wednesday against 94-year-old Evren as well as the other surviving architect of that military takeover, former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87.
Fifty people were executed, half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared during three years of military rule following the September 12, 1980 coup, Turkey’s third in 20 years.
Evren’s trial, unimaginable only a few years ago, will be watched closely by hundreds of military, including top serving and retired commanders, as well as by civilians being tried now as members of the alleged “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” coup conspiracies against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister.
It was a recent constitutional amendment that ended Evren’s immunity from prosecution over the coup.
It is unlikely that Evren, now frail, will appear in court. The prosecutor’s office has said it could hear the testimonies of Evren and Sahinkaya via video link. Evren recently underwent intestinal surgery and Turkish media reported on Tuesday that he had also broken an arm.
On Tuesday, Erdogan’s government, the opposition and parliament joined at least 350 individuals and groups applying to be co-plaintiffs in the trial as aggrieved parties, meaning their grievances will be taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase.
Erdogan said the government had decided it should join the long list of those wronged.
“The first and most important injured party of the coups in Turkey have been the government legitimately representing the nation,” Erdogan said in his weekly speech to his parliamentary Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Tuesday. “We will follow the case closely.”
The 1980 coup leaders argue they were forced to intervene to restore order after years of chaos in which 5,000 people died in factional violence between leftist and rightist groups.
The generals, known widely by their Ottoman title of “Pasha”, traditionally saw themselves as the guardians of a secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.
They mounted a coup in 1960, which saw the hanging of the prime minister and two other senior ministers, and then again in 1971 and 1980 to remove governments they saw as a threat to that order.
Each time the coups restored a revised form of democracy, and as recently as 1997 the army forced Turkey’s first Islamist-led government to resign.
The role of the army, past and present, in Turkish life remains a politically controversial and divisive issue, with Erdogan’s AKP taking steps in recent years to curb its institutional power and role in the state.
Citing AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik, Turkish newspaper Radikal said authorities were removing the names of key figures in the 1980 and previous military coups from schools, streets, stadiums and military barracks “in a coup house cleaning”.
“We need to erase the names of coup plotters from public institutions and from the names of places,” Celik said. “They’ve already been struck from people’s hearts.”