Symbolic, Ironic, but Not Historic: The Trial of the Coup Generals in Turkey
By: Ece Temelkuran
Published Friday, April 6, 2012
"Ironic" read a recent tweet, "In order to reach the courtroom to attend Kenan Evren’s trial, you have to pass through Kenan Evren Boulevard, then Kenan Evren street." Still walking on the roads of a crippled democracy paved by the 1980 military coup, last Tuesday Turkey witnessed the first symbolic case against former generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya. They were members of the military responsible for the 1980 coup who are still alive. Both were absent due to poor health conditions, so was the public enthusiasm to question recent Turkish history.
On 12 September 2010, the 30th anniversary of the 1980 coup, Turkey went to the polls to vote on a referendum for constitutional amendments. While some of the critical amendments involved changing the composition of high judicial entities in favor of the executive authority, the package of amendments was touted by the government as "a big step forward in democracy.”
Their argument was that the perpetrators of the 1980 coup were going to be tried and Turkey would reconcile with its recent bloody history. The 1980 coup was one of the most cruel in modern times with 650,000 detentions, 230,000 prosecutions in military courts, and 300 deaths in prison, with 171 of them being the result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of a 17-year-old Erdal Eren. Beyond the figures of cruelty, the coup shaped the Turkish economy and established a minimum barrier of 10 percent of total votes in a national election for any political party to be represented in the parliament.
During the public debate before the referendum, the opposition drew attention to the roots that the coup still has in the Turkish political and economic system. They argued that trying a few of the then military brass would not be enough to address the coup and its aftermath. As a response to that criticism, Prime Minister Erdoğan chose to give an emotional speech about young victims of the coup. His speech turned into a political game against the objectors and labeled them as defenders of the coup. Finally, when the amendments were approved after the referendum, the impunity of the generals was abolished after 40 years and Kenan Evren, the pasha, was called to court. It was symbolically significant but equally inconsequential. Turkey waited for this magnificent trial for over one year.
Last Tuesday was the day that Kenan Evren, the pasha of blood and tears, was supposed to be in the courtroom. Due to a broken arm and health problems he was not, but the co-plaintiffs of the case were there. One of them was 104-year-old Berfo, mother of Cemil Kırbayır who disappeared during the coup. "I am here!" she said, in the ambulance that she came in and she asked "Where is Kenan Pasha?!"
The victims of the coup, once again carrying their pain in their hands, were entitled to run after the oppressor just to see him slip away through their fingers again. The Progressive Lawyer's Association declared their recuse from the case. They described the trial as a "showcase." So did many opponents over the social media during the trial.
Almost everyone, including the strongest critics of the government, agreed that the trial was symbolically important but refused the government's promotion of the case as the last frontier of democratization. This is especially true when considering there have been thousands of political prisoners incarcerated under the Anti-terror Law, which is almost identical to the military laws of the 1980 coup. The critics of the government briefly argued that, "Back then the label was the anarchist, now it is the terrorist."
During the trial on Tuesday, Twitter was awash with criticisms. One of them seemed to stand out though. Özgür Mumcu, Associate Professor of Law, tweeted an article dated back to June 1981, almost one year after the 1980 coup. It is written by Matthew Rothschild in the Multinational Monitor. The title was After the Tanks Comes the Banks. The article was mainly about the miraculous economic success of Turkey after the coup: "Turkey ranks as the third largest recipient of U.S. military and economic aid-behind Israel and Egypt. And U.S. assistance is growing, with economic aid pledged to increase to US$350 million this fiscal year, compared to US$295 million last year. Military aid will show a 60 percent jump. For fiscal year 1981, the U.S. gave US$250 million to Turkey in foreign military sales credits and loan guarantees at about 4 percent below prime interest rate.(...) Why the infusion of aid from the U.S.? It 'reflects our strong interest in a Turkey that's economically healthy and strong,' says Larry Benedict, U.S. State Department officer for Turkey. With the second largest NATO army (500,000 troops) and a foothold in the Middle East, Turkey counts as a crucial ally in the eyes of U.S. policymakers. 'Just look at its geographic position,' says Benedict."
Reading the article one cannot help but see the the similarity to the International rhetoric on Turkey of today. When you put together thousands of political prisoners with the "economic success of the Turkish model" it is not hard to understand why we are still passing through the Kenan Evren Boulevard. Just to see a symbolic trial for democratization.
Ece Temelkuran is a political commentator, novelist and author of several books published in Turkish and English.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.