Argentina jails ex-dictator while Turkey yet to bring coup leaders to justice

by editor | 24th December 2010 11:03 am

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Turkish civil society organizations have been holding mass demonstrations to call on authorities to try the perpetrators of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup d’etat and others.

Wednesday saw a watershed moment for a country located quite far from Turkey that shares similar past experiences in terms of its efforts towards becoming a full-fledged democracy.
In a landmark ruling, an Argentinean court sentenced former dictator Jorge Videla to life in prison, which has prompted Turkey, a country whose military has overthrown three governments since 1960 and pressured a conservative government to step down in 1997, to question its reluctance to bring past junta leaders to justice.
The ex-dictator was sentenced for the torture and murder of 31 prisoners, most of whom who were “shot while trying to escape” in the months after his military coup. Most of the two dozen former military and police officials who were tried with Videla also received life sentences.
The Associated Press reported that the judges found Videla, who led the military coup that installed Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, “criminally responsible” for the deaths of the prisoners, who were transferred from civilian jail cells to a clandestine prison where they were repeatedly tortured during interrogation before being killed. Videla was first convicted of crimes against humanity in 1985, as Argentina was struggling to return to democracy. He served just five years of a life sentence in a military prison before former President Carlos Menem granted him and other junta leaders amnesty.
After a concerted campaign to reform a judicial system packed with dictatorship-era judges, the Supreme Court overturned those amnesties in 2007, and current President Cristina Fernandez encouraged a wave of new trials of former military and police figures involved in the clandestine torture centers where thousands of the regime’s opponents disappeared. This was the first of dozens of upcoming trials for Videla, now 85. “Argentina is a good example. Turkey should also take action and confirm that staging a coup is a crime,” commented retired military prosecutor Ümit Karda?, recalling that although hundreds of criminal complaints have been filed against Kenan Evren and his accomplices who perpetrated the Sept. 12, 1980, military coup, no investigation has been launched yet.
Turkey made a landmark step in September and took the chance to settle accounts with the dark 1980s by approving a 26-article constitutional reform package which, among other things, paved the way for the trial of the perpetrators of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, by abolishing Article 15 of the Constitution. This article used to give immunity to the generals responsible for the coup.
On Sept. 13, many individual victims and civil society organizations applied to the offices of prosecutors and demanded that Evren and his collaborators face trial for their crimes against humanity, which for the most part basically took place between 1980 and 1983.
Karda? underlines that the pressure exerted by the Argentinean people played a major role in the Argentinean case for the administrators to call the dictator to account and says the Turkish public should be more active in this process. “All victims of the coup and others who have been in some way victimized by the coup should file criminal complaints. The media should closely follow the issue. Unfortunately, as the Turkish people, we tend to forget past sufferings quickly. But we should not forget the atrocities of the Sept. 12,” he said.
Tansel Parlak, a member of the Young Civilians, a nongovernmental organization strongly opposed to the military’s intervention in politics, also underscores that staging a coup is a crime against humanity and that the lives of thousands of people were devastated by the coup. “A person who is responsible for the sufferings of those thousands should be in some way punished,” he told Today’s Zaman.
Turkish democracy has unfortunately been stalled by constant military interventions in politics throughout its history. Turkey’s near history has witnessed two full-fledged coups and many direct and indirect military interventions. Although carrying out or plotting a coup is considered a criminal offense, only failed coup plotters have been tried in Turkey, while none of the coup leaders have stood trial.
The Sept. 12, 1980 military coup, was in particular, the bloodiest and most well-planned one in Turkey’s history.
The coup was a source of great suffering for the citizens as a total of 650,000 people were detained during this period. Files for 1,683,000 people were recorded at police stations. A total of 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 cases, mostly for political reasons. A further 517 people were sentenced to death, while 7,000 people faced charges that carried a sentence of capital punishment. Of those who received the death penalty, 50 were executed. As a result of the unsanitary conditions and torture in prisons, 299 people died in custody. A total of 144 people died in circumstances where the perpetrators could not be found, while 14 died during hunger strikes, 16 were shot to death because they were supposedly trying to escape from prison and 43 people committed suicide.
Trial of coup leaders stuck in statute of limitations debates

Although the approval of the reform package boosted hopes to settle accounts with coup leaders of the Sept. 12, the abolishment of Article 15 also started a debate over whether it is possible to try these generals for their crimes. The generals had expected to be protected by a statute of limitations in 2000, 20 years after the military takeover. However, former prosecutor Sacit Kayasu prepared an indictment against former President Kenan Evren, who was the coup leader, which resulted in Kayasu’s disbarment. With the indictment, the statute of limitations for the coup generals was extended another 10 years.
Some experts were quick to declare that the statute of limitations expired on Sept. 12, 2010 and this makes it impossible to bring the coup generals before a court. But other experts suggest that it is possible to try them, since staging a coup is a crime against humanity and such crimes are not subject to statute of limitations.
Former prosecutor Karda? is among the second group of legal experts who see the trial of coup leaders as being possible. Stating that he has also prepared a criminal complaint in which he explains why and how these coup leaders should be prosecuted, Karda? says what the nation wants to see today is a judicial process to commence against Evren and his accomplices. “We will have hope once we see the process begin. The public should at least see that an investigation has been launched,” he told Today’s Zaman.
From a failed attempt in 1958 to Sledgehammer trial

Turkey tried the suspected instigators of a coup for the first time in its history in 1958 after an army officer informed the prime minister of the time, Adnan Menderes, about preparations for the coup. It was Maj. Samet Ku?çu who raised the alarm about a junta group that was planning to stage a military coup.
Nine high-ranking officers were arrested and tried by a military court. The verdict was, however, disappointing. The nine were cleared of the charge, while the informer, Ku?çu, was discharged from the military and sentenced to two years in prison for slander. But in May 1960, when the military staged the coup, the nine officers who had been tried and released were one of the cells of the junta. The junta executed Menderes, Foreign Minister Fatin Rü?tü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan after the coup.
Turkey took its second landmark step since 1958 last week and began trying the suspected plotters of a 2003 coup plot codenamed Sledgehammer. Last Thursday Turkey started trying nearly 200 active duty and retired members of the armed forces on Thursday on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The trial concerns the Sledgehammer Security Operation Plan, a suspected coup plan devised at a military gathering in 2003 that allegedly sought to undermine the government in order to lay the groundwork for a military takeover.
According to the Sledgehammer plan, the military was to systematically foment chaos in society through violent acts, among which were planned bomb attacks on the Fatih and Beyaz?t mosques in ?stanbul. The plot allegedly sought to undermine the government to lay the groundwork for a coup d’état.

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