Turkey's first coup still a raw nerve

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

Image caption,
Deposed ministers were put on trial on the island of Yassi Ada

Turkey's current tensions over the influence of the powerful military are rooted in a history of political turmoil and coups.

On 27 May, 1960, the Turkish armed forces overthrew the elected government, the first of a series of military interventions in politics which have continued to divide Turkish society.

I travelled to the island where the deposed political leaders were put on trial, with a group of relatives and activists who are campaigning for a new look at those events 50 years ago.

Sitting just an hour's boat ride from the centre of Istanbul, in the sparkling blue Sea of Marmara, the little rocky islet of Yassi Ada is virtually ignored, aside from the odd boat-load of scuba divers.

There are a few derelict buildings: the ruins of 11th-Century prison cells, where Byzantine political prisoners were left to rot, a strange castle-like house built by a British ambassador in the 19th Century, and a more recently constructed sports hall.

It was in the sports hall that one of the great dramas of modern Turkish history was played out 50 years ago, when 600 government ministers and officials were put on trial, following the country's first military coup.

Death sentences

Today, the building is crumbling and overgrown. But photographs from 50 years ago show its tiered seats packed with lawyers, military officers and defendants as the 11 month-long trials were under way.

Image caption,
The deposed leaders' relatives reject positive views held about the coup

At the end of the trial, 15 defendants were sentenced to death for crimes against the constitution, despite pleas for clemency from leaders like President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, and President De Gaulle.

On 15 September 1962, former foreign minister Fatin Rustu Zorlu and finance minister Hasan Polatka were hanged on Imrali island, to the south.

Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who had won three elections and governed for ten years, tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills, but was revived, and hanged two days later.

President Celal Bayar escaped execution because he was 78 years old.

Polarised society

The coup was instigated by mostly middle-ranking officers, after growing tension between the ruling Democrat-led government and the opposition CHP, the party founded by the father of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At the time the CHP was led by Ataturk's close colleague and revered war hero Ismet Inonu.

Menderes imposed increasing restrictions on the opposition, and ordered the army to help suppress anti-government protests by students. The economy had been deteriorating for several years, and the country was increasingly polarised.

So in the eyes of many Turks, this was the "good coup".

Its leader was the fatherly General Cemal Gursel. Within 18 months he had held an election and presided over a new constitution - the best the country has had, according to many liberal Turks.

Civilian rule was fully restored within five years.

"There was very little criticism at the time," says Ertugrul Kurkcu, a former left-wing activist and now editor of the news website Bianet.

"Generally, the coup was believed to be bringing Turkey towards a more liberal and democratic constitutional framework - it was the first constitution to recognise the rights of labour, the right to criticise openly."

'Original sin'

That is a view that some activists, and relatives of the men tried in 1961, want to challenge.

An energetic group calling itself the Young Civilians organised a boat trip to Yassi Ada on the 50th anniversary of the coup to try to revive public memories of what happened.

"This coup was the original sin," says Ceren Kenar.

It started the coup tradition in Turkish politics, the military tutelage over civilian rule.

Walking up to the old sports hall with me was Fatin Rustu Yener, the grandson of the executed foreign minister.

Image caption,
The sports hall hosted the trials of 600 ministers and officials

"I feel terrible coming back here," he said.

"They were very dedicated men, a wonderful generation.

"One moment you are trying to do your best for the country, the next you are brought to this island and kept in cages like animals."

He said the military even painted over his grandfather's window to prevent him enjoying the view of the sea.

So why did the military rulers at the time impose such harsh penalties on the men they deposed?

Emine Gursoy Naskali, grand-daughter of the president who escaped the noose because of his age, believes the new military rulers were advised they had to find the deposed ministers guilty of serious crimes, to justify their coup.

It is also true that the military junta was split between moderate generals, and a more radical faction of younger colonels.

The radicals were eventually sidelined, but the death sentences may have been concessions to keep them quiet.

'Favourite coups'

Nothing in Turkey, though, is without a political angle.

The Young Civilians are accused by some, like Ertugrul Kurkcu, of being little more than a front for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which for years has been fighting a barely-concealed battle to keep the military out of politics.

Adnan Menderes, with his populist policies and conservative Muslim support base, is an acknowledged inspiration for the current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

"The thing about Turkish politics is that people have favourite coups," says Ceren Kenar.

She insists the Young Civilians oppose all coups.

So does Professor Soli Ozel at Bilgi University. But he warns against simplistic anti-coup campaigns by younger Turks.

"We need a revisionist history, and we now have enough material to assess the 1960 coup clearly," he says.

"My concern is that it is done only from one perspective. I do not approve of the coup itself. But going from that to say that Turkey in 1960 had a perfectly democratic order is wrong."

On Yassi Ada the activists made speeches in the hall, signed a poster and were gone after an hour, leaving the island and its old buildings with the sound of the wind and sea.

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