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Will 1980 coup trial heal Turkey’s wounds? A skeptic’s perspective

Yesterday, I joined Al-Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’ for a panel discussion on Turkey’s 1980 coup trial. The program offers an introduction to the coup as well as the coup case, so I will not mention them here. Apart from what I had mentioned in my brief comments, I want to expand on my arguments in this blog post. Although the 1980 coup is a dark episode in Turkish history and the majority of the Turks look back negatively on it, this very, very belated, but nonetheless positive case is also very problematic for several reasons:

1 – Symbolic nature of the case: First, trying the leaders of the 1980 military coup is hardly more than symbolic. The Chief of Staff in 1980, Kenan Evren is now 94 and Tahsin Şahinkaya, then commander of the air force, is 87. The indictment demands ‘life sentence’, which is rather odd, given Evren and Şahinkaya’s age. If anything, the case serves as a warning to the Turkish military as an institution and its younger officers in particular, making an example of two former generals. The message is clear: ”If you plot again, justice will find you in the end, even if you succeed”. This is the very definition of a political case; it is less concerned with justice and more concerned with making an example of a historical case to today’s military ranks.

2- Facing which history? The legal process completely leaves untouched the real fallout from the 1980 military coup: the 1982 (military) Constitution, those members of the military-police that engaged in systematic use of torture, the infamous Board of Higher Education (which is still a symbol of state control over the academia) and the %10 election threshold (intended to keep Kurdish parties out of the parliament), among other things. Instead of addressing the real damage of the 1980 coup, the case is focused on two old long-retired generals over which the government enthusiastically advertises this case as ‘bringing justice’ and Turkey ‘facing its history’. The legal case is strictly confined to the 1980 coup and its immediate leadership, whereas for the Turkish people it was the 3-year junta period that was catastrophic. Therefore, this legal case so far exhibits the government’s revenge from the 1980 coup, rather than a genuine banishment of the ghosts of 1980. Although it is argued that 500 applications for co-plaintiff status have been submitted (which is an argument used by pro-government circles to prove how this is a ‘people’s case’) one is not hard-pressed to find reasons to be skeptic over how much voice will be given to those 500 applicants. Based on mounting criticism over the procedures of other highly politicized legal proceedings currently taking place in Turkey these 500 co-plaintiffs will not play any more than a symbolic role.

Will 1980 coup trial heal Turkey's wounds? A skeptic's perspective

TIME magazine with Kenan Evren on the cover – September 29, 1980

3- The question of press freedom: Certain government members appeared on numerous TV and radio channels yesterday and gave very emotional speeches about how this is the ‘case of the decade’ and how it is a crucial step for Turkey in its quest for freedom and democracy. A number of them highlighted how the post-1980 junta period had suppressed press freedoms and imprisoned many journalists. As much as it is true, it is nonetheless interesting to see these arguments coming from a government during whose tenure Turkey topped the global ‘imprisoned journalists’ list and whose minister argued that all of those journalists were imprisoned because of ‘rape of burglary’ charges.

4- The ‘scoreboard’ of suffering: The fact that the 1980 coup case witnessed a historic record of 500 applications for co-plaintiff status should give you an idea about how the Turkish society feels about the 1980 coup. Although the 1980 coup was initially welcomed by some segments of the population (as it had effectively ended more than a decade long left-wing vs. right-wing street clashes) the systematic use of violence, torture, disappearances and deaths under custody had created a nation-wide discontent with the legacy of 1980. Most specifically, the coup was an anti-communist move, mesmerized by the specter of Russia and growing leftist influence in Turkey. Therefore it was mainly the leftists (including communists, socialists and liberals) that had suffered from the 1980 coup, but all segments of the society in equal or lesser forms also fell victim to the practices of the military junta. Yet, the government chose to use a narrative of victimhood claiming that ”we [the government party members] suffered most” from the 1980 coup and that the main opposition, secularist Republican People’s Party – CHP should assume responsibility for what happened in 1980. It is somewhat anachronistic given the fact that the 1980 military coup had led to the closure of the CHP, confiscation of its archives and assets, and imprisonment of about 800 of its members. Strangely, much of the government leadership today had been left untouched by 1980 – none of them were arrested, let alone tortured; furthermore, many members of the government leadership had even assumed executive positions in the post-junta period and through the Turgut Ozal government, which was elected in 1983. Even more problematic perhaps, the current government still pushes for the closure case of the Kurdish BDP party at a time it is fiercely criticizing 1980’s anti-democratic aspects. Similarly, it is hard to see any differences between the current government’s and 1980’s response to student demonstrations.

Will 1980 coup trial heal Turkey's wounds? A skeptic's perspective

Kenan Evren and Prime Minister Erdogan at a military funeral

In short, while few people support the 1980 coup, Turkish public is much less enthusiastic and more cautious of the case – much of this lack of enthusiasm and suspicion emerges from the current government’s increasingly poor relationship with (and discourse-practice-policy divergence over) liberal democracy and civil liberties.

Also see: Rare photos from the 1980 coup period



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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