ANKARA — Turkey’s former army chief and more than 100 other suspects went on trial on Monday over a 1997 bloodless coup that toppled the country’s first Islamist head of government.
General Ismail Hakki Karadayi stands accused with 102 co-defendents of “overthrowing the Turkish government by force.”
Prosecutors have called for a life sentence for Karadayi, 81, who did not attend Monday’s hearing at an Ankara court due to ill health.
Rival protests broke out outside the courtroom, with some shouting “Justice must be delivered” and “Coup-plotters must be put on trial” while other chanted slogans in support of the army leader.
The high-profile trial concerns the toppling in 1997 of Turkey’s first Islamist head of government, Necmettin Erbakan, political mentor of current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The army brought down Erbakan’s government without spilling a drop of blood and did not install a military administration to replace the civilian cabinet.
A parade of tanks outside Ankara and an ultimatum issued to Erbakan were all it took to overthrow his government without violence.
It became known as the “postmodern” coup as no troops were involved.
Karadayi, however, has denied that the army’s actions were a coup and told prosecutors that the military “did not exert any pressure on the government,” according to the Milliyet daily.
The army, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular principles, had overthrown three earlier administrations in 1960, 1971 and 1980.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has reined in the once-powerful military through a series of court cases.
In August, a Turkish court jailed former military chief General Ilker Basbug for life and imprisoned scores of other senior figures for their role in a conspiracy to overthrow Erdogan’s government.
Last September, more than 300 active and retired army officers, including three former generals, received prison sentences of up to 20 years over a 2003 military exercise alleged to have been an undercover coup plot.
The extensive trials have polarized the country, with Turkey’s secular quarters denouncing them as a witch-hunt to silence government critics.
But pro-government circles have praised the trials as a step towards democracy in Turkey.
The Basbug verdict sparked angry protests in the streets, with police firing tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters who had gathered outside the court.
An investigation into the 1997 coup was launched last year and 37 suspects were placed in custody.
Karadayi himself was arrested in January but released on bail pending the trial.
His deputy, former general Cevik Bir, was imprisoned and appeared at the opening of the trial on Monday.
The hearings for the 1997 coup will last until September 6 and a verdict is expected to be announced within months.