1980 Coup: Reminder of threat to democracy in Türkiye.

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Coups were nothing extraordinary for a weary nation governed under the shadow of military tutelage for decades. Yet, their lasting impact was felt when people took to the streets years later to prevent yet another one on July 15, 2016. As Türkiye observes the 42nd anniversary of the Sept. 12 coup, this constant threat to democracy appears far away though still fresh in the memories of torture victims and families who lost their loved ones.

On Sept. 12, 1980, Türkiye woke up to a morning with tanks rolling on the streets and soldiers telling people at gunpoint to go back home amid a strict curfew. “Martial law” was declared and a process that would be marked by mass detentions and death sentences began.

In the following days and months, 650,000 people were detained and 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 trials across the country. Courts ruled by the military sought the death sentence for more than 7,000 people and 50 out of 517 people sentenced to death were hanged. The exact number is not known but some 300 people are believed to have died after suffering from torture in prisons. The citizenships of another 14,000 people was revoked while 30,000 people were declared “persona non grata” and dismissed from their jobs.

A time of massive human rights violations during which thousands were mistreated, the coup, for its architects, was an excuse to end the political turmoil lingering from the 1970s when conflict between people of different ideologies heightened.

The coup was planned months prior by Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren and his aides in the army, and was nicknamed “Operation Flag.” The putschists had originally planned to carry it out on July 11 but postponed it when the Süleyman Demirel government won a vote of confidence. Nevertheless, the “National Security Council” of the putschists was still determined to grab power and launched the coup in the early hours of Sept. 12, 1980. They scrapped the Constitution and annulled Parliament, before moving on to shut down nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Political parties were shut down while top politicians, from Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit to Necmettin Erbakan and Alparslan Türkeş, were sent into exile and banned from politics.

On Oct. 9, 1980, the first death sentences were carried out. Necdet Adalı, a left-wing activist accused of involvement in the killing of right-wing people and Mustafa Pehlivanoğlu, an “ülkücü” (Idealist), a right-wing activist, were hanged on the same day. Both were in their 20s when they were hanged and both were implicated on similar charges, though without any substantial evidence. Their hangings marked the beginning of the putschists’ policy of equal treatment for people of different ideologies. “We hanged one from the left and one from the right,” Kenan Evren famously said years later while speaking about the hangings. For him, it was an “unbiased” approach. Among those from the “left” was Erdal Eren, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing a military police officer before the coup. The country’s Court of Appeals, the highest judiciary authority, overturned the death sentence for Eren twice but the National Security Council ignored the verdicts and ordered his hanging. Though the execution of underage convicts was against the law, the council came up with a solution: changing Eren’s age on his ID, thus, making him eligible for the death sentence. Eren was hanged at a prison in the capital Ankara on Dec. 13, 1980. “Should we not hang them but feed them, then?” Evren infamously said while defending the hanging of Eren.

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Derailed lives
Forty-two years later, the coup lingers as the worst memory for its victims. Oktay Fırtına buried the pain of the loss of his brother Mustafa Pehlivanoğlu deep in his heart and mind but one thing keeps reminding him of the trauma of the coup: his last name. The Pehlivanoğlu family was forced to change their last name after the hanging of the young man. “A lawyer sent by generals visited us one month after his death and told us that our last name should be changed so that ‘we wouldn’t be harmed anymore.’ We could not object to it and 10 days later, they gave us new last names,” he told Ihlas News Agency (IHA) ahead of the anniversary of the coup.

Fırtına now asks President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to help them reclaim their former last name again. “My parents fought for it but could not do it. I hope the president will allow us,” he says.

He also said his brother was innocent when he was hanged. “He was a university student. There had been a raid on a coffeehouse and his name was included in that investigation. We worked hard and presented all the evidence pointing to his innocence but the court rejected it. My brother was at home eating dinner when the coffeehouse was attacked. We tried hard to prove it but failed. The prosecutor proved his innocence but the court ordered his hanging anyway,” he recalled. “We could not see his corpse after his hanging and we were allowed to visit his grave only after nine months,” he added.

Fırtına said the “Idealists” suffered the most in the coup. “This was a coup against them. They suffered from torture. They even imprisoned me and my father after my brother escaped from prison once. I was tortured for 11 days, with electrocution,” he said.

Hakverdi Satılmış was among those imprisoned for his links to Idealists and faced the death sentence. He describes a section of the infamous Mamak prison in Ankara as “a torture house exclusively for Idealists.” The prison in the military base hosted countless victims of the coup after the military took power. “I was among a group who were tortured for 36 days. They put us on strappado (a form of torture also known as ‘Palestinian hanging’) and stripped us naked. They put electric cables on us and electrocuted us,” he said. He explained that they were forced to accept the accusations made against them, to “confess” through torture. “I finally had to accept them when they started to bringing my mother to prison, implying that they would torture her as well,” he told IHA. Satılmış avoided the death sentence but spent 12 years in prison. He vividly remembers his “worst” memories, including seeing Ali Bülent Orkan, who was hanged in 1982. “He was in the next cell. They almost crucified him, handcuffed his arms and feet to iron bars. They did not give him food or water for days and did not allow him to sleep. He could only scream ‘Devils!’ I spent days hearing the screams of others,” he recounted.

Osman Başer, tried in the same trial and kept in prison between 1980 and 1991, works as a lawyer today. “There was nothing back then, no human rights, no legal rights for those held by the putschists. They would not allow you to defend yourself in court,” he said. “We were not granted any right, neither the right to a defense nor the right to be deemed innocent until proven guilty.” He said people were forced to plead guilty to charges they were accused of through torture. “Certainly, many of my friends there were acquitted but a large number of people were hanged without a fair trial, based on insufficient evidence,” he highlighted.

Fate of putschists
The 1980 coup was not the last one to shake Türkiye as military tutelage made its presence felt in Turkish politics for years to come. In 1997, it reared its ugly head again for the so-called “postmodern coup,” a bloodless attempt that forced the collapse of the government after a military ultimatum targeting Necmettin Erbakan, also a victim of the 1980 coup. But finally, in 2012, Türkiye managed to put two surviving coup leaders, Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya, on trial. Both men were too ill to attend but gave brief statements to the court through a video link system from their hospital beds.

During the proceedings, Evren refused to answer questions from prosecutors, maintaining that the court had no right to put him on trial. He made a brief statement saying the military was forced to intervene and introduce a “new constitutional order to bring peace and calm.” “The Sept. 12 movement was a historic event,” he said. “Historic events cannot be put on trial. They are examined scientifically.” “The great Turkish nation did not deserve to live through the (1970s) events,” he testified. “We did what was right at the time and if it happened today we would carry out a military coup again,” he said.

Eventually, both men were sentenced to life and stripped of their military titles. But both died, in quick succession, due to illnesses stemming from their old age as an appeals process by their lawyers was underway. One year later, Türkiye would be rocked by another coup, this time by military infiltrators of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). But an unprecedented public resistance, at the cost of 251 lives, foiled the attempt. Unlike the previous coups, Türkiye moved swiftly to bring the perpetrators to justice and hundreds involved in the coup attempt were sentenced to life.

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