The trial of former general represents a historic opportunity for Turkey to face its past, but there are reasons to be cautious.
Last week in Ankara, the trial began of former generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya for their involvement in the 1980 Turkish coup. The coup traumatised Turkish society. An estimated 650,000 people were arrested, the vast majority of whom were tortured and tried before military courts; about 300 died under arrest. The protection of fundamental rights was reduced to a minuscule level with the 1982 constitution that has stayed in force ever since. The underlying ideology of the coup crushed leftwing parties to the degree that Turkish politics still lacks a central party with a genuine leftwing agenda.
Victims of the coup, their relatives, politicians and politically conscious citizens flooded the courtroom for the trial. Leyla Zana, the Sakharov-prize-winning Kurdish politician, told the press that the coup “stole the smile of children of the day”. There were those children, such as 17-year-old Erdal Eren, who paid for their political beliefs with their lives. And there were those who lost their parents or spent their childhood away from them. I belong to the last category.
My parents were active members of the Turkish Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ party that was banned after the coup. I was five years old when my parents and I came back from a weekend trip to find our door forced open. Inside, everything was turned into a mess by a group of policemen who had been waiting for us and searching our flat. We were taken to the infamous counterterrorism unit in Gayrettepe as a part of a major police operation against the underground left movement. The building was full with blindfolded people who were taken from one room to the next by the police.
Although I was a child, I knew what was waiting for them and my parents. I was nine years old when my parents and I were finally reunited. Still, I disagree with Zana: thanks to the unprecedented solidarity the society showed at the time, the coup could not steal my smile. The children of the coup received privileged treatment at home, at school and on the street. Parents were respected for their sacrifice; children were respected for theirs.
The generals of the coup were not held accountable for their crimes before, as they were protected with a constitutional immunity clause that was lifted only in 2010. In the meantime, Evren in particular lived a celebrity life. Thus, the trial represents a historic opportunity for Turkey to face its recent political past.
Nevertheless, like many others, I keep my expectations at a modest level. First, in the recent Ergenekon case, which initially began with similar hopes, the Turkish judiciary could not show the legal and logistical capacity necessary to deal effectively with politically complex issues. Particularly, the chaos that overtook the first session of the trial of Evren and Şahinkaya does not bode well for the future of the case. The courtroom could not even accommodate those pleading to intervene. The fact that Evren, aged 95, and Şahinkaya, 87, did not attend the first session because of health reasons brings to mind the trial of Pinochet, who died in 2006 without being convicted for any crime after a six-year battle between Chilean courts on questions of presidential immunity.
Furthermore, the trial – like Pinochet’s – is potentially prone to being politicised under the mask of legal arguments, such as whether the removal of constitutional immunity could apply retroactively. The best strategy for Ankara’s court to avoid such politicisation is to rely on the standards of international law to the closest possible degree, as did the House of Lords in the extradition of Pinochet.
Finally and most crucially, there is a risk of the trial turning attention away from ongoing human rights violations in Turkey: among others theKurdish politicians arrested under the KCK operations, children tortured in the Pozanti prison and the 35 villagers mistaken for being PKK members and killed. The ideology of the coup is still very much alive in many elements of the Turkish legal and justice system. What seems to be missing is solidarity, as the society remains polarised and the media follows a policy of self-censorship.