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Top court upholds life sentences in Turkey’s 1997 postmodern coup trial

Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals building in Ankara.

Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals on Friday upheld the life sentences handed down to 14 defendants, including a former chief of general staff and his deputy, who were convicted and sentenced in 2018 for their roles in the post-modern coup of February 28, 1997 following the issuance of a military memorandum.

Among those sentenced to life in prison were then-Chief of General Staff Çevik Bir and Operations Chief Çetin Doğan. President of the Higher Education Board (YÖK) at the time Kemal Gürüz was also sentenced to life.

Deputy Chief of General Staff İsmail Hakkı Karadayı, who was also sentenced to life imprisonment, passed away in 2020.

The lower court did not rule to imprison the defendants due to their advanced age, instead ruling for judicial supervision and a ban on traveling outside the country.

The defendants will now go to prison as the top court’s verdict is final.

The top court also upheld the acquittal of 37 others.

The 1997 campaign of army pressure against the government of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, a political precursor to current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stopped short of a full-blown coup. Still, the military pressure and the appearance of tanks in a town outside the capital, Ankara, have long rankled Erdoğan and members of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Turkey saw violent coups in 1960 and in 1980, but under Erdoğan, who survived a putsch in 2016, the political strength of the military has been drastically rolled back.

The defendants were accused of “forming criminal associations to overthrow the government of the Republic of Turkey.”

Postmodern coup

The case tackles the infamous military intervention of Feb. 28, 1997, often described as a “postmodern coup,” which did not result in direct military rule but forced the late Prime Minister Erbakan to resign after the National Security Council (MGK) issued a memorandum.

The bloodless “postmodern” coup is famous for having deposed the head of government after tanks paraded outside Ankara and Erbakan was given an ultimatum.

Because the Islamist Erbakan-led government was forced out without the dissolution of parliament or the suspension of the constitution, the event was labeled a “postmodern coup” by members of the military involved in the process. To enforce the Feb. 28 MGK decisions, Gen. Bir founded and chaired the Batı Çalışma Grubu (West Study Group).

Erbakan, the conservative politician who led the coalition government, was forced to sign into law the army’s decisions on certain issues, such as a ban on headscarves for civil servants and the shutting down of Quran training schools. The military also ramped up pressure on Erbakan and his conservative Welfare Party (RP) over “secular concerns.”

Erbakan resigned four months later, while his RP and its successor, the Virtue Party (FP), were both banned by the Constitutional Court in January 1998 and June 2001, respectively. Erbakan, who died in 2011, pioneered Islamist politics in Turkey, a Muslim country with a secular state system, paving the way for the later success of Erdogan’s AKP. Current Turkish President Erdoğan was also involved in politics under Erbakan’s party and was elected mayor of İstanbul in 1994.

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