June 18, 2014 8:02 pm

Turkey’s former president Evren sentenced to life for 1980 coup

In this photo taken on Septenber 4, 2010, Turkey's former Army Commander General Kenan Evren, one of the leaders of the 1980 Turkish coup, sits in his home in Ankara. The historic trial of former Turkish junta leader Kenan Evren and another ex-general of his regime will begin April 4 before an Ankara court, semi-official news agency Anatolia said. Prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for the pair, who are the only surviving members of the five-man junta which seized power on September 12, 1980. Evren came to power after the coup and served as Turkey's seventh president from 1982 to 1989. AFP PHOTO /ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Kenan Evren, former president of Turkey

A Turkish court sentenced a 97-year-old former president to life imprisonment on Wednesday for carrying out a brutal 1980 coup, closing one chapter in the country’s tortuous history of civil-military relations.

The Ankara court that sentenced Kenan Evren , who served as president for seven years from 1982, handed down the same verdict to General Tahsin Sahinkaya, the other surviving junta member. The two men, who were also stripped of their military ranks, have the right of appeal.

Even though the men’s advanced age makes their incarceration unlikely, the verdicts mark a historic change in a country where the military remained the principal political actor into this century.

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The sentences were delivered on the same day that a much larger-scale prosecution into an alleged coup plot, dating from 2003, collapsed. A constitutional court ruled that the rights of 230 defendants on trial over the so-called Sledgehammer plot had been violated – a decision that paves the way for a retrial.

Together, the cases reflect the continuing reverberations from Turkey’s succession of coups and subsequent settling of accounts that some observers say descended into witchhunts relying on fake evidence.

Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has university, hailed both decisions, saying: “It is important to prosecute the atrocities of the past but to draw the line between real and imagined conspiracies.”

Prof Ozel said the Evren verdict, in particular, was a sign that Turkey had caught up with countries such as Argentina in dealing with the legacy of military rule.

Another analyst, Suat Kiniklioglu at the Ankara-based Centre for Strategic Communication, a think-tank, said the Evren decision would deter future soldiers from similar actions. “It certainly provides closure on a very controversial part of our recent history and confirms the new democratic standard of civilian – military relations,” he said.

The 1980 putsch was the country’s last full-blown coup, featuring at least 650,000 arrests, widespread torture, hundreds of deaths in prison and 50 executions, including that of a 17-year-old boy. However, the military in effect ejected an elected government from office as recently as 1997.

It is important to prosecute the atrocities of the past but to draw the line between real and imagined conspiracies

- Soli Ozel, Kadir Has university

Neither Evren nor Sahinkaya was liable to prosecution until Turkey amended its military-era constitution in 2010.

The conclusion of the case contrasts with the judicial chaos surrounding more recent – and much larger-scale – coup plot trials, such as Sledgehammer and another high-profile case known as Ergenekon.

Defendants in those cases have long claimed that their trials were deeply flawed, with the Sledgehammer defendants – mostly military officers – arguing that a part of the prosecution case rested on fabricated evidence.

The ruling, Islamist-rooted AK party previously vaunted those cases as a break with the era of military dominance. But following a recent split with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers championed the prosecutions, the administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, has distanced itself from them.

One of Mr Erdogan’s advisers has described the Sledgehammer case as a plot against the military, while many people jailed because of Ergenekon have been released this year.

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