Turkey’s modern history has seen frequent coups and military interventions in politics, the most severe of which took place 42 years ago on 12 September 1980. With this coup General Kenan Evren launched a period of repression that saw political parties closed and banned, hundreds of thousands of people detained and tried, and hundreds executed, shot in extrajudicial killings or tortured to death.
The 1961 constitution, which had been prepared in the aftermath of the military coup on 27 May 1960, brought an atmosphere of relative freedom due to its liberal character and focus on pluralistic democracy.
However, the decades after it was written were marred by political instability and violence. In 1971, after reciprocal political violence by left-wing and, particularly, right-wing groups, the military intervened once again, deposing the government of the time and replacing it with conservative appointees.
But the new government was unable to solve the country’s simmering issues during the decade before the 1980 coup, with political instability, economic crises, and security problems worsening during that period. At the same time, the growth of left-wing movements is believed to have unnerved NATO, which saw Turkey as a key bulwark for its influence throughout a crucial region.
In addition to this, Turkey saw several instances of severe upheaval caused by the far-right. One of the most infamous occasions came in 1978, when ultra-nationalists massacred members of Turkey’s Alevi minority in Maraş and Çorum.
At the same time, the period saw a wave of political assassinations, with politicians and journalists targeted, and the Kurdish political movement began to mobilise.
The crisis came to a head in the early hours of 12 September 1980, when the Turkish Armed Forces seized Turkey’s official television channel and other offices of communication. The coup was announced in a statement read out at 4am.
After the coup, with martial law in place across the country, 517 defendants were sentenced to the death penalty, nearly 1.7 million people were placed on a political blacklist, and 230,000 people were put on trial. Some 98,000 people were tried for “membership of a terrorist organisation”, and 388,000 people had their passports confiscated. Around 14,000 people were stripped of their citizenship, and 30,000 people fled the country as “political refugees”.
There were also 171 documented cases of detainees “dying under torture”, according to a report produced by a Turkish parliamentary commission in 2012.
The repression and torture that characterised the 1980 military junta was a strong presence in Diyarbakır (Amed) Prison, which was opened in 1980 after the coup and is among the “10 most notorious prisons in the world” according to the Times.
Thirty-four people who were subjected to torture in the prison died and hundreds were left with debilitating injuries. Kemal Pir, one of the founding members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), died as a result of a hunger strike. PKK Central Committee Member Mazlum Doğan was among several prisoners who committed suicide. Women prisoners suffered torture and rape. In Çayan Demirel’s 2011 documentary ‘Prison No. 5’, former convicts from the prison said they were still suffering from the trauma they experienced under captivity during this period.
And, some who lived through the period say that the trauma and repression have continued thanks to the legacy of the post-coup constitution written in 1982, which is still the basis of today’s Turkish constitution.
Fikret Melih Çolakoğulları, one of the witnesses to the coup, told Medyanews that “the coup of 12 September displayed the violence in every aspect of life, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the product of the 12 September constitution.”
“There was a grim cruelty in prisons. Inmates in Diyarbakır Prison used to be tortured every single day,” said Ayşe Çiçek, the sister of a Kurdish convict, Ali Çiçek, who lost his life in a hunger strike to protest the brutality in the prison.