In what was unimaginable a few years ago, retired general and former President Kenan Evren and former commander of the Air Force Tahsin Şahinkaya -- two surviving leaders of the bloody 1980 coup that shaped the country for three decades -- were put on trial on Wednesday.
More than 30 years after the Sept. 12, 1980 military takeover, the Ankara 12th High Criminal Court began hearing the case against 94-year-old Evren, who served for seven years as president, as well as former air force commander Şahinkaya (87), the other surviving architect of the coup.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the court, waving flags and shouting slogans demanding justice and the prosecution of more than just the coup ring-leaders. There are some 500 co-plaintiffs in the case, which include representatives of eight political parties and the Turkish Parliament. Sixty of the co-plaintiff lawyers and three defense lawyers attended the first hearing.
Defense lawyers asked the court to drop the case, saying while Sept. 12 was a coup d'état, a civilian court is not authorized to hear the trial. However, the court rejected the request.
The silver-haired Evren is now very frail and did not appear in court. The prosecutor's office has said it could hear Evren and Şahinkaya's testimonies via video link. Evren recently underwent intestinal surgery and Turkish media outlets reported on Tuesday that he had broken an arm.
When the presiding judge stated that the court could allow the indictment to be read aloud in the absence of the suspects and then asked those in the courtroom whether they had any objections, co-plaintiff lawyers said the indictment should be read aloud in presence of the suspects. After a short recess, the court then decided to wait for the suspects to recover and adjourned until health permitted the two men to attend a court hearing.
The indictment, which came after a year-long investigation, was submitted to the Ankara 12th High Criminal Court in January and seeks life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for both Evren and Şahinkaya.
Evren is well remembered for his public explanation for sending dozens of militants to the gallows. He had posed the question, “Should we feed those terrorists instead of hanging them?”
He shut down Parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties before returning power to civilians three years later. Some 650,000 people were detained in the days that followed the coup and 230,000 people were prosecuted in military courts, according to official figures.
Some 300 people died in prison, including 171 people who died as a result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of 17-year-old Erdal Eren, whose hanging for allegedly killing a soldier horrified the nation. “We did not forget, we did not forgive,” read one banner, carried by protesters.
Erdoğan targets opposition
The trial of the coup leaders was made possible by a government-sponsored reform package that was approved in a referendum in 2010. Among other things, the reform package annulled a constitutional article that served as a legal shield for coup leaders.
During the campaign for the referendum, both the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) called on the public to say “no” to the reforms, claiming that it was a lie that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government would bring the perpetrators of the Sept. 12 coup to justice.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented on the start of the coup trial on Wednesday at an AK Party meeting, criticizing the opposition for seeking co-plaintiff status in the case despite the fact they had called for a “no” vote ahead of the referendum.
“Those who unanimously opposed us ahead of the Sept. 12  public vote, who insulted us and who accused us of lying all swallowed what they had said. They are now lined up in the court. The courtroom is now full. They are now ashamed, not only before us but before their [parties'] grassroots,” Erdoğan said.
Commenting on the landmark trial on Wednesday, President Abdullah Gül said, “The trial will lead to a significant change in mentality which will prevent any similar such attempts in the future.” He also called on the nation to show the same solidarity it showed on Wednesday when making a new constitution to replace the current one, which was prepared by the 1980 coup leaders.