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Turkey: Landmark Trial of 1980 Military Coup Leaders Begins

(Apr. 12, 2012) Two retired generals have been placed on trial for their role in the September 12, 1980, coup d'etat in Turkey, which imposed military rule on the country for three years and reportedly saw 50 people executed and 500,000 arrested. The Ankara 12th High Criminal Court began proceedings on April 4, 2012, having accepted the indictment in January, but the two defendants, Kenan Evren, 94, and Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87, are too ill at present to appear in court. The charge against the men was reportedly commission of crimes against the state for attempting the overthrow of a civilian government, with prosecutors seeking a sentence of life imprisonment. (Dan Taglioli, Turkish Court Begins Trial of 1980 Military Coup Leaders, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Apr. 4, 2012).) However, on April 7, 2012, the court indicated that criminal complaints would be filed against Evren and Sahinkaya “on charges of torture and mistreatment, to be investigated separately.” (Court Rejects Pleas to Arrest Coup Defendants, HÜRRIYET DAILY NEWS (Apr. 7, 2012).)

The trial is made possible by a September 12, 2010, referendum on amending Turkey's Constitution, which included the repeal of provisional article 15 granting the coup leaders immunity from prosecution. (Ayla Jean Yackley, Factbox: Turkey's Constitutional Amendments, REUTERS (Sept. 12, 2010); Oya Yegen, Turkey Readying New Constitution, COMPARATIVECONSTITUTION.ORG (Mar. 30, 2012, posted 12:59 p.m.); [Turkey's] 1982 Constitution: Part Six/Provisional Articles, Constitution Society website (last visited Apr. 10, 2012) [scroll down to view (unrepealed) art. 15].) A motion by the defense to have the case dismissed, on the grounds that a civilian court lacked the authority to hold the trial, was rejected. (Tagliogli, supra.)

The two men were part of a five-man junta that took power in the 1980 coup. That coup is viewed by some as the bloodiest among the four coups launched in the last 50 years by the military; the others took place on May 27, 1960; March 12, 1971; and February 28, 1997, which is deemed a “post-modern” coup because the military relied on a propaganda campaign, rather than direct intervention, to force the resignation of the coalition government at the time. (Turkey's First Face-off with Military Coups Starts Today, TURKISH WEEKLY (Apr. 4, 2012); Chronology of Turkish Military Coups: From the 1961 Young Officers Coup to the 2007 e-Memo, TODAY'S ZAMAN (May 1, 2007).)

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the opposition, and the Grand National Assembly (Turkey's Parliament), along with “at least 350 individuals and groups,” have applied to be co-plaintiffs in the trial as aggrieved parties; that is, “their grievances will be taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase.” (Turkey 1980 Coup Leader Kenan Evren Goes on Trial, THE GUARDIAN (Apr. 4, 2012).)

At the end of the third hearing in the case, on April 9, 2012, the Ankara court judge rejected pleas to arrest the ailing defendants, stating that banning them from traveling abroad would be sufficient, given “their advanced age and poor health.” The court will seek the advice of medical authorities to determine whether the two men would be able to answer questions via video conferencing or appear in court with a medical escort. In the interim, the case has been adjourned until May 11. (Court Rejects Pleas to Arrest Coup Defendants, supra.)

One reporter called the case “a landmark in the steady erosion of military power begun by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as part of democratic reforms aimed at bringing Turkey closer to European Union membership.” He added, “[u]ntil the last decade, the army regularly intervened in politics in moves it said were meant to safeguard the secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from 1923.” (Ece Toksabay, Former Turkish President Goes on Trial for 1980 Coup, REUTERS (Apr. 4, 2012).)