1980 coup leaders given life sentences in Turkey

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — In a showcase trial aimed at ending the military's interference in Turkish politics for good, a court on Wednesday convicted the only two surviving leaders of the country's 1980 military coup of crimes against the state and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Kenan Evren, 97, the military chief of staff who led the takeover and went on to serve as president until 1989, and Tahsin Sahinkaya, the 89-year-old former air force chief, had been on trial since 2012. They are the first coup leaders to be prosecuted in the country, where the military has overthrown three governments since the 1960s and pressured an Islamic-led government to quit in 1997.

The 1980 military takeover stopped deadly fighting between political extremists but also led to a wave of executions, torture and disappearances.

The two men — who did not attend the trial because of ill health and testified by video link from their hospital beds — will immediately appeal the verdict, their lawyer Burak Baskale told The Associated Press.

Their prosecution was made possible after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, intent on burying the military influence in Turkish politics, secured constitutional amendments in 2010 to revoke their immunity.

The court in Ankara on Wednesday also ruled that the two retired generals should be stripped of their military ranks, reducing their ranks to privates, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

"This verdict should serve as a lesson to those who have non-democratic desires," opposition legislator Aytun Ciray told NTV television.

Evren was initially regarded as a hero by many Turks because the Sept. 12, 1980, military takeover stopped the fighting. But he was later accused of condoning the chaos in the years before the coup and using it as an excuse for the military to step in and restore order. He shut down Parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties, then quit the military but became president until 1989.

Some 650,000 people were detained in the upheaval and 230,000 people were prosecuted in military courts, according to official figures. Some 300 people died in prison, including 171 who died as a result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of a 17-year-old.

Testifying in 2012, Evren described the coup as a necessary act that he would repeat under the same conditions. He said Turkey's military was forced to intervene because of politicians' incompetence in the late 1970s.

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