A comet called Kenan Evren

Former chief of General Staff, Gen. Kenan Evren, leader of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup and later president of the republic, died at the age of 98 the other day while a court case condemning his role in overthrowing the legal government of the country was underway. Although a mediocre man, his trajectory in life was like a comet.

He is the symbol of an ominous part of Turkish political history both before the coup and afterwards. The country at that time was divided between right and left-wing camps that were engaged in fatal civil strife. All sections and institutions of society were polarized and pitted against each other. Everyday dozens of young people died in street shootouts. Many civic leaders, academicians, prominent intellectuals and politicians were murdered by unidentified assassins, altogether leaving 5,000 people dead and dimming the nation’s hope.

The military intervention was welcomed by many in order to disperse the dark clouds over the country. The coup may be likened to a strict status of quarantine to prevent an epidemic from consuming society. Of course, such a comprehensive intrusion in public life required wide-spread repression and full control of all institutions.

The 1980 coup brought a forced peace to society but a very heavy-handed administration that stifled freedoms, limited civic rights and guaranteed the tutelary role of the military regime through a new Constitution and paternalistic institutions.

Here is the bitter harvest of the military intervention:

Parliament and all political parties were banned with party leaders taken into custody 517 people were condemned to capital punishment, 50 of whom were hanged, including a 17-year-old boy whose age was raised by executive order 1,683,000 people were scrutinized by security forces and about 1 million of them were arrested 230,000 people were tried in 210 court cases 71,000 people were tried on the grounds of spreading propaganda in favor of fundamentalism and communism and 98,404 people were tried for being members of a terrorist or subversive organization.

More than 50,000 people lost their jobs as they were seen as a threat 14,000 people were stripped of their citizenship and forced into exile 30,000 people left the country in search of political asylum around 300 people died while being detained, 299 lost their lives while serving prison sentences and 171 people died as a result of torture. Forty-seven judges, 3,854 teachers and 120 academicians were fired 937 films were banned 23,677 associations were terminated 400 journalists were sentenced to a total of 3,315 years and six months imprisonment out of which 31 were sent to jail 300 journalists were beaten by the police while three were murdered newspapers were closed down for 300 days over the year and 13 major dailies were intimidated with a combined total of 303 court cases.

Evren and his four comrades were hailed as heroes and rewarded with impunity and high honors. Evren became president of the country. Law and order returned and the economy that had been in shambles bounced back. But the legacy of the brutality of the military intervention remained buried in the public psyche.

The impunity of extrajudicial killings and wide-spread torture was never forgiven. A change was made possible after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government secured constitutional amendments in a 2010 referendum. A case was even initiated against Gen. Evren and one other living member of the junta. They were stripped of their ranks but were too frail to be brought to the court room.

The military’s role in politics was successfully terminated by the incumbent AKP, an achievement hailed by all democrats of the country. But AKP’s democratic reforms ended short of changing the illiberal Constitution and other laws that reflect its authoritarian character, such as the Election Law (providing for the 10 percent threshold) and the Political Parties Law.

Evren’s death has revealed the hypocrisy in all of us. We hail the death of the man that was crowned the savior of the country 35 years ago while we bury the same man with his legacy as a ruthless dictator while retaining the laws and institutions he helped implant in our political system. Does that make us democrats?