Turkey's trial of Evren and Sahinkaya is historic moment

Kenan Evren in 2010
Image caption Gen Kenan Evren has been unrepentant about what the military did

The trial of the two surviving leaders of the 1980 coup is a historic, symbolic moment for Turkey.

Gen Kenan Evren and Gen Tahsin Sahinkaya are unlikely to appear in court in person, and they will certainly not go to prison because of their ages and frail health.

The Turkish armed forces, known here simply by the initials TSK, have been a powerful and untouchable institution for most of the republic's 90-year history.

It was Turkish soldiers, under the command of Kemal Ataturk, who were credited with forging modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

The military, with its fiercely anti-communist outlook, pushed Turkey's alignment with the West during the Cold War, building close, often covert relationships with their US counterparts.

Turkish generals have also unseated four elected governments. The coup they launched on 12 September 1980 was the most sweeping, and the most brutal.

Fifty people were executed and more than half a million detained. Thousands lost their citizenship and had to go into exile. Gruesome torture was routine.

Journalist Niyazi Dalyanci was one of those who ended up behind bars. He worked for a left-wing peace organisation at the time, which the new military authorities viewed as a communist front.

"I saw the military jeeps picking people up and I thought they would come for me," he recalled.

"Luckily some people from my organisation came in a car to collect me from my home, and took me to our headquarters. I hid there for a week, still working as a journalist."

But in February 1982 his luck ran out. He was arrested and charged with being a member of a communist organisation, and of making anti-Turkish remarks. He spent two years in prison, and considers himself lucky not to have been tortured.

Comrades jailed

Dogan Tarkan was a left-wing activist. Left-wing movements were strong and widely supported back then. Some were armed, and had been involved in fighting with right-wing militants, which had cost hundreds of lives before the coup.

"I was a lucky person, because I left the country two months after the coup," he said.

"I went to Syria first, and then asked for asylum in the UK. I spent 11, 12 years in the UK. It was not possible for me to come back to Turkey, and it's an experience. You have to leave your country, your loved ones.

"My comrades were - almost all of them - in prison. Many of them were sentenced to death. The first person hanged after this coup was my close friend."

When they took power, Gen Evren and his colleagues set about re-structuring Turkish society so that it would never again be as unruly and unstable as it had become in the 1970s.

Image caption Many people were tortured or detained after the 1980 coup

Their main target was left-wing groups, of any kind. But they also locked up mainstream politicians, bureaucrats, academics - anyone who could pose a threat to their hold on power.

They re-wrote the constitution, leaving Turkey with a profoundly undemocratic charter elected governments are still struggling to reform or replace.

They imposed tight state control over education, banning politics from university campuses, and re-writing the curriculum to make it more nationalist.

Later, after their fourth, more subtle coup against an Islamist government in 1997, they imposed new restrictions on religious expression.

They also included in their constitution a clause giving them immunity from prosecution for their actions.

Gen Evren served as Turkey's president from 1983 to 1989 and must have assumed, when he retired to his house on the Aegean coast and took up painting, that he would go to his grave without ever facing trial.

Shift of power

He has been unrepentant about what the military did. To those who criticised the execution of a 17-year-old student, Erdal Eren, he replied: "Should we feed them in prison for years, instead of hanging them?"

That the 94-year-old coup leader and his colleague now find themselves facing charges of overthrowing a government is due to an extraordinary shift in the balance of power that has taken place over the past five years.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2002, it attracted attention largely because of its Islamist roots.

That immediately aroused the suspicion of the TSK, which considers itself the guardian of the secular political system established by Ataturk.

But there was something else. The AKP tapped into a hunger in Turkey for strong leadership by a democratic party, and proved to be adept in maintaining an unassailable electoral mandate.

It also tested the public's willingness to tolerate military intervention in the 21st Century. It turned out that tolerance had gone.

So when the military tried to block the AKP's choice of president, Abdullah Gul, in 2007, the party called an early election and won a much stronger majority.

When the staunchly secular Constitutional Court took up a case for banning the AKP in 2008, on the grounds that it threatened secularism, it balked at overthrowing such a popular government.

This gave the party the confidence to bring a raft of constitutional amendments to a referendum in 2010, which it won.

Among those amendments was one overturning the immunity from prosecution that the coup leaders had given themselves. Hundreds of criminal complaints against Gen Evren quickly followed.

For many of the victims this trial will be a moment to savour.

"I will be happy, and proud," says Dogan Tarkan.

"This is a big victory. I don't mind whether they go to jail or not. The trial itself is enough. The humiliation they will get is enough, the sentence they will get is enough, and they can be pardoned afterwards."

But Niyazi Dalyanci is unmoved and has not put himself forward to be a "co-plaintiff", as hundreds of others have, including the cabinet and the parliament.

"I think it's a showcase trial," he said.

"I don't feel that putting these two old men on trial will make a difference. The important thing for us - I mean the victims of the coup - is to see that all the remnants, all the restrictions of that period should be transformed into a democratic system, which has not happened."

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