ANKARA (Reuters) - Former Turkish general Kenan Evren should be forced to attend court to face his accusers over his 1980 coup which led to the jailing of half a million, the torture of thousands and the execution of 50 people, victims’ lawyers said on Thursday.
Evren, 94, and another coup plotter, went on trial this week in a landmark case in the decades-old tussle for supremacy between elected politicians and Turkey’s army.
But both Evren and former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87, failed to appear in the Ankara court on the first day of their trial on Wednesday, and again on Thursday, citing ill health.
It is only in the last 10 years that the power of Turkey’s military “Pashas” has been gradually reined in as part of democratic reforms by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government aimed at bringing Turkey closer to European Union membership.
“According to the constitution, every citizen is equal before the courts and every Turkish citizen is to be tried before Turkey’s courts,” lawyer Ural Gundogan, who represents a number of leftist coup victims, told the court.
Evren and Sahinkaya must be brought before the court, he said “to make them understand the equality article of the constitution ... and by force if necessary.”
Evren and Sahinkaya should be treated no differently to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet who were both forced to appear in court despite their advanced age and ill health, lawyers said.
“Just as Hosni Mubarak was brought to court and questioned in a cage and Pinochet was brought in a wheelchair, Evren should be brought in on a hospital bed if necessary. Evren was no less of a dictator than them,” Sabah newspaper quoted lawyer Celahattin Can as saying.
The panel of three judges demanded medical reports for the two defendants and said they would rule whether the indictment could be read in their absence.
In the meantime the court heard statements from victims seeking to be co-plaintiffs in the case so their grievances are taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase of the trial.
One of them, grey-haired, thin and bespectacled Mustafa Yalciner, was head of Revolutionary Communist Party before the 1980 coup.
“I was arrested after the coup and tortured for months,” he told the court. “Evren and Sahinkaya should be charged with being public enemies and treason.”
Turkey remains haunted by those times, when virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned. Hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared in three years of military rule after the coup, Turkey’s third in 20 years.
Tanks were posted at strategic points across Turkey’s cities and troops roamed the streets enforcing martial law.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the trial should serve as a warning to others.
Hundreds of military officers, including top serving and retired commanders, are also now on trial accused of involvement in the alleged “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” coup conspiracies against Erdogan and his ruling party which emerged from a string of banned Islamist political groups.
Many Turkish secularists broadly support efforts to rein in the power of the army, but say the coup conspiracy trials have been used as a pretext to round up scores of the government’s political opponents and create a climate of fear.
They suspect the mass trials, reforms to the judiciary and efforts to rewrite the constitution are part of a government drive towards creating an Islamic order. Erdogan’s government, in power since 2002, denies such ambitions.
The generals, known widely by their Ottoman title of “Pasha”, long saw it as their right to intervene in political affairs and if necessary topple the government to safeguard the secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after 1923.
They mounted a coup in 1960 that led to the hanging of the prime minister and two other senior ministers, and then staged two more takeovers in 1971 and 1980 to oust governments they saw as a threat to Ataturk’s legacy.
Each time the coup leaders restored a revised form of democracy, and as recently as 1997 the army forced Turkey’s first Islamist-led government to resign.
But in 2007, Erdogan simply ignored a statement from the military which said parliament should not select Gul as president. The power of the generals was broken.
Evren says he does not regret the coup, arguing it restored order after years of chaos in which 5,000 people were killed in street violence between leftist and right-wing groups.
“Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?” he asked in a speech in 1984, referring to those executed after the coup.
Apart from the need to end the killings on the streets, the 1980 coup leaders were also worried by what they saw as a rising Islamist threat to the secular republic following the 1979 Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran.
Writing by Jon Hemming