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Turkey: Coup Trial Offers Chance for Justice

Prosecution Should Focus on Human Rights Violations After 1980 Takeover

(Istanbul) – The trial of the two surviving leaders of the September 12, 1980 military coup in Turkey should focus not only on the illegality of the coup but also on the evidence of gross human rights abuses in its aftermath, Human Rights Watch said today.

The trial of retired generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya is to begin on April 4, 2012, in Ankara. The two are charged with overthrowing the parliament and constitutional order in a military coup whose negative impact on human rights and democracy continues to be felt in Turkey more than three decades later.

“The 1980 coup derailed democracy and ushered in restrictions on rights and freedoms still in evidence in Turkey today,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This trial offers an important opportunity to deliver justice for the gross human rights violations that followed the coup – most notably, mass torture and deaths in custody, which amount to crimes against humanity under the present Turkish Penal Code.”

Until recently the coup leaders and all public officials benefitted from an immunity law under provisional article 15 of the 1982 constitution that protected them from any criminal, legal, or financial liability for any activities between September 12, 1980 and December 7, 1983. Provisional article 15 was repealed in a September 12, 2010 referendum, 30 years after the military coup. The Ankara prosecutor indicted the coup leaders in January 2012.

At least half of the evidence in the indictment against Evren and Şahinkaya focuses on arrests and torture in police custody and in military-controlled prisons following the suspension of democracy in the wake of the coup, although the two are not charged with these crimes.

The indictment also examines the military’s role in fomenting political turmoil in the late 1970s to prepare the ground for a military takeover. This included suspected military involvement in the political assassinations of public figures and massacres such as those against Turkey’s Alevi minority and leftists in Anatolian towns such as Maraşand Çorum. It examines the evidence of direct military interference in parliamentary politics and the chronology of the coup itself.

The trial offers an opportunity to deal in particular with Turkey’s legacy of torture, Human Rights Watch said.  International and domestic human rights groups extensively documented torture in places of detention in the post-coup period. Turkey’s torture record was later documented extensively by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) as well as by the United Nations Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the UN special rapporteur on torture, who concluded that torture was systematically practiced in Turkey in the 1990s.

Official Justice Ministry statistics estimate that 650,000 people were arrested after the coup, the majority associated with leftist and also pro-Kurdish politics as well as many associated with far-right political groups and some Islamists. The military regime tried 230,000 of them in special Martial Law Courts for “political crimes,” 71,500 of them for crimes against the state and constitutional order for which they faced possible life imprisonment or the death penalty. Official figures also record that the activities of 23,700 civil society associations were suspended and 927 publications banned.

The indictment includes testimony from eight witnesses as well as testimony from 16 other people taken from books and media interviews about the coup, alongside other published evidence. The testimony and other evidence details prolonged torture and deaths in detention, and names military personnel, police, doctors, and prison officials responsible for or complicit in torture. The prosecutor’s indictment concludes that:


"Diyarbakır Military Prison and Mamak Military Prison were prisons that became centers    of systematic torture. At the same time the place known as the Ankara Security Directorate’s 'in-depth research laboratory' (DAL), Adıyaman Pirin Palas Prison, and Gayrettepe in Istanbul became prominent torture centers. Together with these notorious places, all the detention centers and prison in the country were used in this way at that period." 


Under article 77 of the Turkish Penal Code (no 5237, introduced in 2005), torture is counted among “crimes against humanity” when “committed systematically according to a plan against a section of the society for political, philosophical, racial or religious motivations.” While the Ankara prosecutor has referred allegations of torture and deaths in custody to chief prosecutors’ offices in 47 provinces around the country, there is also a strong case for the allegations to be examined in the trial of the coup leaders as “crimes against humanity,” as defined in the Turkish Penal Code.

“Given the evidence already in the indictment, the Ankara prosecutor should also investigate the authorization of a policy of torture at the highest level,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Alongside this should be the criminal investigation and prosecution of a wide network of military personnel, police, public officials, and doctors involved in torture as a state policy in provinces throughout the country.”


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