ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The two surviving leaders of Turkey's 1980 military coup went on trial on Wednesday for their heavy crackdown on political freedom and a spate of executions, torture and disappearances committed under their command.
The trial of retired Gen. Kenan Evren, who as military chief of staff led the coup and then the country from 1982 to 1989, and retired Gen. Tahsin Sahinkaya, chief of the air force at the time, comes as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government is curtailing the military's clout.
"This case is a milestone for Turkish democracy," Selcuk Ozdag, a lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party told state television. "It is the result of the government's political will."
Evren was initially regarded as a hero by many Turks because the military takeover stopped fighting between leftist and right-wing groups that led to fears that Turkey was heading toward a civil war. But he is blamed for the torture of suspected militants and their supporters and for introducing a constitution that restricted freedoms and formalized the military's role in politics.
The government and Parliament, as well as several political parties, have said they would seek the court's permission to join the trial as plaintiffs along with hundreds of non-governmental organizations and citizens.
Hundreds of demonstrators, including many leftists and some right-wing activists, gathered outside the courthouse in Ankara on Wednesday as the trial began in a packed court room.
Evren is well remembered for his public explanation for sending dozens of militants to the gallows: "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 Turks.
"We did not forget, we did not forgive," read one banner, carried by the protesters.
The coup leaders, both in poor health, have been hospitalized and did not attend. Evren, 94, and Sahinkaya, 86, have been charged with crimes against the state and face possible life imprisonment for leading the coup.
Their prosecution was made possible after constitutional amendments passed in 2010 lifted their immunity and allowed them to be brought to trial. The trial process was expected to last several months, if not years.
"We want this case to be expanded; we also want to see several other military commanders, prison officials (at time of the coup) as defendants," Celalettin Can, an activist, told NTV television.
His group, 78'liler or Generation 1978, has long campaigned for the prosecution of the coup leaders and other officers they accuse of torture.
Hundreds of people, including many active and retired officers, separately are standing trial in more recent alleged coup plots. The trials were welcomed by the public at first, but long imprisonments without verdicts and alleged irregularities in the handling of evidence have stirred claims that the government might be manipulating the legal process.
The government has initiated negotiations with opposition parties for the drafting of a new constitution.
"In today's Turkey, no one can have the courage to mention juntas or coups," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said. "Because our democracy has become stronger, relationships between the civilian and the military have settled within the norms of modern democracy."