Turkey: calls grow for trial of 1980 coup leaders after referendum on constitutional reform

ISTANBUL (AP) — A Turkish lawmaker demanded Wednesday that the leaders of a 1980 military coup be brought to trial, following approval of constitutional amendments that lifted their immunity.

The prospect of legal action against a cadre of elderly and retired military officers could fuel tension in a nation where a reformist government led by devout Muslims is battling opposition from staunchly secular institutions, including the courts and the military.

It's not clear if such prosecutions can actually occur: some legal experts say a statute of limitations on legal moves against the coup engineers expired. Supporters of prosecution, however, argue there should be no deadline for alleged crimes against humanity.

The prosecutor's office in Istanbul assigned prosecutor Kadir Altinisik on Wednesday to examine petitions demanding the coup leaders be prosecuted, the Anatolia news agency said. He is expected to prepare a report afterward.

On Sunday, Turks approved changes to a constitution introduced after the 1980 coup that the government said would advance Turkey's democracy and ambitions to join the European Union. The next morning, several human rights groups filed legal documents targeting Kenan Evren, the military chief of staff who led the 1980 coup and became president.

Omer Celik, vice chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, said it was up to the courts to decide whether legal action can proceed. He harshly criticized the engineers of a coup that led to a wave of executions, torture and disappearances, many unexplained to this day.

"They are a gang of murderers," Celik told foreign media organizations at a lunch in an Ottoman-era pavilion. "In principle, I want the military coup leaders to be brought to court. This is a crime against humanity."

Celik, who is in charge of foreign affairs for his party, cited atrocities committed by the state at a prison in Diyarbakir, the main city in southeast Turkey and for many years a center of operations by Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to demolish that prison during a speech in Diyarbakir before the referendum and move the inmates to a modern prison.

Celik said he found it "totally disturbing" that streets and social centers are still named after Evren and other retired military officers linked to the coup.

"I want his name to be removed from any public space because he doesn't deserve this dignity," Celik said.

Evren, 93 and ailing, is a contradictory figure. He was initially hailed by many as a hero by many Turks because the coup curbed fighting between leftist and right-wing groups that had some people wondering whether Turkey was headed for a civil war.

But he is remembered widely for the torture of suspected militants and their supporters and for introducing a constitution that restricted freedoms and formalized the military's role in politics. An armed rebellion by Kurds broke out during his presidential tenure, and the polarization of that era helped shape the often fractious political debate in Turkey today.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who were rounded up during the coup were suspected leftist militants, though their hardline foes were also targeted. Turkey's 24 TV recently aired comments that Evren made about a decade ago:

"I never made a distinction on the basis of left or right. There were those who were found guilty and those who were to be given the death sentence," Evren said. "For example, when a right-winger was executed, I would deliberately have the next one wait, and then we would execute a left-winger. So basically we would hang one from the right and one from the left, just to balance things."

After his retirement, Evren moved to the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris where he took up painting.

A series of prosecutions against the suspected masterminds of more recent coup plots, including retired and active military officers, is already under way. Opponents claim the charges mask an attempt by Erdogan to silence critics, but the government, in its second term and gearing up for elections in 2011, says the removal of the military's shadow over politics is overdue.

Young Civilians, a non-governmental group, filed a petition against eight individuals, including Evren, the commanders of the air, land and navy forces at the time of the coup, and the junta-appointed prime minister. Fatmagul Matur, a group member, said there was a 30-year statute of limitations on prosecuting crimes but noted that some alleged crimes were committed by coup leaders well after 1980.

"He has to apologize and he has to be in court," she said of Evren. "He doesn't accept that he did bad things."

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