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Turkey's 1980 Military Coup Leaders Go On Trial

Former military chief of staff Kenan Evren (left) and ex-air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya are facing charges for a military coup in 1980, which established military rule in Turkey for three years.
The two surviving leaders of Turkey's 1980 military coup have gone on trial in the country's capital Ankara.

Former military chief of staff Kenan Evren, who later became president, and former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, have been charged with crimes of state for ousting the civilian government on September 12, 1980.

Fifty people were executed, half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared in three years of military rule following the coup.

The 94-year-old Evren and 87-year-old Sahinkaya did not attend the opening of the trial on April 4 because of frail health. It is unclear whether they could ever serve possible life sentences if found guilty.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse in Ankara as the landmark trial opened.

The trial comes alongside the separate trials of hundreds of military officials, including top serving and retired commanders, as well as civilians, for their alleged involvement in plots to topple the Islamist-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Fears Of A Religious Agenda

The Turkish military has traditionally seen itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular order, which was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army soldier who founded the modern Turkish state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Turkish generals have mounted three coups -- in 1960, 1971 and 1980 -- to oust governments they saw as a threat to the secular order.

In 1997, the military forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government to resign.

In 1980, the coup leaders argued that they had to act to save Turkey from chaos amid rising street violence by left-wing and right-wing groups.

In the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, they were also worried by what they saw as the rising Islamist threat to the secular republic.

The trial of Evren, who was president from 1983 to 1989, became possible after a recent constitutional amendment lifted his immunity from prosecution.

Some critics have accused Prime Minister Erdogan of seeking to establish an Islamic order by trying to restrict the power of the military, as well as through judicial and constitutional reform. Erdogan denies holding such ambitions.