Coming to terms with the 1980 coup

Despite the trial of the coup leaders, the vestiges of the 1980 coup will continue until a new civilian constitution is written.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 06/04/12

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The trial that began in Ankara on Wednesday (April 4th) against the generals who led the 1980 coup brought together an unusual crowd, as plaintiffs and spectators packed the courthouse in a landmark case filled with emotion, political symbolism and a sense of history.

  • A man looks at portraits of people who were executed, disappeared or died in jail during military rule after a 1980 coup, as protesters demonstrate in front of an Ankara courthouse on Wednesday (April 4th). [Reuters]

    A man looks at portraits of people who were executed, disappeared or died in jail during military rule after a 1980 coup, as protesters demonstrate in front of an Ankara courthouse on Wednesday (April 4th). [Reuters]

The trial of coup leader and seventh president, 94-year-old Kenan Evren, and former head of the Air Force, 86-year-old Tahsin Sahinkaya, marks the first time the country is bringing to account the coup leaders and the legacy they left behind.

Plaintiffs include the ruling AKP government, the cabinet, the opposition CHP and MHP -- both of which were closed after the coup -- the pro-Kurdish BDP, several smaller political parties, and hundreds of individuals, as well as the Turkish Parliament, on the grounds that "the coup used unconstitutional powers to forcibly usurp Parliament's legislative authority."

One plaintiff, AK Party deputy Selcuk Ozdag, who was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years and tortured, says the trial isn't only about receiving personal justice.

"I could forgive all the injustices I suffered. But the real significance of this trial is to reveal the damages to the Turkish nation due to 1980 and all other coups," Ozdag told SES Türkiye.

He says the importance of the trial is not only that Evren and Sahinkaya will be put on trial. "The real importance is that the coup mentality is currently being judged and those who have any wishes to attempt any another coup will take some lessons from this trial."

Yet while some see a historic process and a step forward for democracy, others consider the trial to be a showcase, targeting only two individuals, while the legacy of the coup remains.

The opposition CHP, which has received criticism from the AKP for opposing the 2010 constitutional referendum that paved the way for the trial by lifting the generals' immunity, is now a plaintiff.

"The then leader of the CHP, Mr. Bulent Ecevit, was arrested by the September 12th mentality. Our party was closed down, all our archives were destroyed. We are the real victims of this process," Umut Oran, a CHP deputy, told SES Türkiye.

However, Oran is sceptical the current trial will erase the last vestiges of the "coup mentality", arguing that many of the same practices applied under military rule are now being carried out in a different form under "the AK Party junta."

"I don't believe [an AKP] that grew up in the atmosphere created by the September 12th mentality, which implements the same coup practices today in the streets, in the universities and in every living space, can judge the September 12th coup," he said.

Currently nearly 100 journalists are in prison, more than 400 active and retired military officers are in extended pre-trail detention, dozens of students have been arrested or thrown out of school for protesting, unions have been prevented from protesting, and hundreds are in prison under the ongoing KCK trials in what the government claims are crimes of action, not of thought.

Given this stark picture, Contemporary Journalists Association (ÇGD) President Ahmet Abakay views the current trial as little more than lip service.

"This situation [trial] has turned into an inept scenario, reduced to the name of just two personalities, and has degenerated into a bunch of political speeches," he told SES Türkiye.

Abakay argues that since the AKP came to power, many remnants of the coup still remain. "The obligatory religious courses, the electoral threshold, the Kurdish problem have all been created by that coup. But today’s government hasn't taken any steps to remove those coup remnants," he remarked, questioning the sincerity of the trial.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the trial, pro-democracy activists like Sehadet Citil, a member of the anti-militarist Young Civilians group, view the trial through the prism of an ongoing struggle to peel away the military's tutelage over state and society.

"At the end of the day, the fact that these two coup leaders sit in the dock and that somebody tells them their guilt to their faces is a very big step for Turkish democracy," she told SES Türkiye.

"Those coup leaders did everything they wanted in the past. The law was there to legitimise what they did, to favour their initiatives. But now it is the contrary. From now on, the law has been introduced to serve the people, not specific segments of the state structure," she said.


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