In what is an amazing scene, General Kenan Evren, the instigator of the 1980 military coup and a former president of Turkey, is being prosecuted in a civilian criminal court for the atrocities and human rights violations that were carried out during the period of military rule. The entire Turkish political establishment is lining up against Evren, with over 500 co-plaintiffs including the CHP, MHP, and BDP, and the prosecution of Evren was paved by a referendum in 2010 that proposed to nullify the constitutional provisions granting Evren immunity for life.
Dealing with the perpetrators of the coup and the subsequent dark era in Turkish history is an important move for Turkey, as only by airing this type of dirty laundry out in the open can Turkey once and for all move past the era of military interventions in politics. The trial is one step on this path, and the scrapping of the 1982 constitution in favor of a new one will finally establish civilian control over the military as complete. That nearly every important Turkish politician, institution, and public figure is of one mind over the Evren trial, and that the military has so far remained quiet, is a great sign of how much Turkish democracy has matured. Prosecuting Evren does not read as a quest for vengeance so much as a desire to grapple with and face an unpleasant reminder of Turkey’s more authoritarian past, and it will make a future authoritarian takeover that much harder to accomplish, whether it emanates from the military or from Turkey’s civilian rulers.
Putting Evren on trial does not, however, come without consequences. I will leave the analysis of what nullifying these types of pacts does to the mindset of the SCAF in Egypt to those who are expert in both Egypt and Middle Eastern militaries and have written on the subject of pacts before (paging Steven Cook on all counts), but it will also affect internal politics in Turkey. Whatever one thinks of Evren and the validity of the 1982 constitution, the fact is that he only consented to returning power to civilians because of the immunity safeguard, and the uncomfortable truth is that the 1982 constitution is still the operative governing document of Turkey until it is replaced. Evren deserves to answer for his crimes, but this smells of mob justice rather than proper procedure. Furthermore, if Evren can be hauled in front of a court to answer for his crimes three decades later and despite his age (94) and bad health, it makes it that much more unlikely that should Turkey suffer an authoritarian relapse, the offenders will agree to leave absent some serious fighting and bloodshed. As unsavory as the golden parachute may be, it serves a distinct purpose, which is to pave the way for smooth transitions to democracy. Finally, while the ultimate objective here may be deterring the military from ever overthrowing the government again, it might have the opposite effect on the mindset of the officer corps. Erdoğan and the AKP have shown no hesitation at going after more contemporary military targets, such as Ilker Başbuğ, and this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back so that the next time a military coup plot is uncovered, unlike Ergenekon and Sledgehammer it will be based on reality more than fiction.
“That nearly every important Turkish politician, institution, and public figure is of one mind over the Evren trial, and that the military has so far remained quiet, is a great sign of how much Turkish democracy has matured.”
Might the quiet from the military also be caused by the recent imprisonment of a frightening number of military officers?
I think that’s probably part of it, but not the entire story. The upper echelons of the military are still willing to express their displeasure when they feel it is warranted – Başbuğ is not going down quietly, and the mass resignation of all the service chiefs a few months ago was another example.