Kenan Evren

Submitted by on Sep 1, 2015

Turkish president during the 1980s who seized power in a coup and was indicted in 2012

6:46PM BST 11 May 2015

Kenan Evren, who has died aged 97, was an army general who masterminded the bloodiest coup in Turkey’s history; many saw him as a saviour of his nation, but others regarded him as a man with blood on his hands.

The takeover, in September 1980, followed months of growing impatience by Turkey’s “Pasha” officer class over the inability of civilian politicians to solve the country’s pressing political and economic problems at a time when no party had a clear majority.

The pro-western government of Suleyman Demirel had been virtually paralysed because its pro-Islamic coalition partner had been agitating for a shift in policy towards the Muslim world. In the streets there had been fierce clashes between Left-wing and Right-wing activists and a spate of terrorist attacks that threatened to reduce Turkey to a state of anarchy.

When, on September 12 1980, Evren gave orders for his tanks to roll on to the streets of Turkish cities in a pre-dawn assault, most Turks welcomed the army’s intervention. In what became known as the “Coup in Velvet Boots”, militant checkpoints were dismantled without a shot being fired and order was quickly restored.

The Queen greeting Kenan Evren at Victoria station (Reuters)

But the coup did not remain bloodless for long. Presiding over a five-man junta, Evren declared himself head of state and imposed martial law. Some 600,000 people were arrested, including many of the country’s intellectuals and artists, of whom 230,000 were put on trial. Tens of thousands of people were removed from their jobs; restrictions were imposed on the press, on trade unions and on universities.

Forty-nine people were sent to the gallows, while nearly 300 died from torture and bad prison conditions. “If you do not hang those who deserve it, they will spread like a virus,” Evren was reported to have declared. “We hanged one from the Right, one from the Left,” he explained later. “In this way, we wanted to prove we were not taking sides.’’

In 1982 the military junta secured voters’ approval of a new constitution, giving legal sanction to the restrictions that it had imposed on civic life, the old constitution having been, according to Evren, too “luxurious” for Turkey. In November 1982 Evren was elected seventh president after Turkey returned to ostensible civilian rule. He remained in office until his retirement in 1989.

In the 1990s Evren opted out of public life and moved to the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Armutalan, Marmaris, in order to enjoy a quiet retirement painting nudes and landscapes. Although he came under constant attack from human rights groups he and his second-in-command, the former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, escaped prosecution until Ankara stripped them of their immunity in 2010.

Kenan Evren at home in Ankara (AFP)

Last year a high court in Ankara sentenced the two men to life imprisonment for their roles in the 1980 coup, but Evren never expressed any regret. “If it was today, we would do the same thing and stage that coup all over again,” he said at a hearing in 2012. “I have no remorse.”

Kenan Evren was born on July 17 1917 in Alasehir in western Turkey, where his parents had moved from the Balkans.

After graduating from a military high school in Istanbul, he climbed the ranks in the Turkish army and saw service in the Korean War. Promoted to the rank of general in 1964, he was appointed chief of the military staff in 1978.

Evren explained that one of the key reasons for the coup in 1980 was to restore order to a society distracted from what he called its “historical vocation” of closing the gap with Europe. During the 1980s the suppression of civil rights in Turkey went hand-in-hand with a programme of liberalisation which saw the economy grow rapidly and Turkey become an important market for western business, particularly construction and defence companies. He also promoted women’s rights, including legalising abortion, against Muslim opposition.

September 15 1980: Troops seal off a main road in the Turkish capital Ankara after the military coup led by General Kenan Evren (Getty)

In 1988 Evren embarked on an official tour of European capitals as part of a campaign for Turkey to be allowed to join the EC. The tour began with a state visit to London, the first by a Turkish head of state for 21 years, symbolising the increasingly friendly relations between the two countries.

Although Evren was hated by Turkish liberals, others continued to argue that he had saved the country from bloody chaos. “Whether you like it or not, the cold hard truth of the matter is that Evren and Sahinkaya saved the nation from civil war and untold bloodshed,’’ read a letter in one newspaper after the two men were indicted in 2012. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.’’

Evren’s conviction on charges of crimes against the state last year was a humiliation – he was demoted to the rank of private. But since he and his co-defendant, Tahsin Sahinkaya, were absent due to poor health, their trial was largely symbolic.

Kenan Evren’s wife, Sekine, died in 1982. Their three daughters survive him.

Kenan Evren, born July 17 1917, died May 9 2015

Kenan EvrenKenan Evren
Kenan EvrenKenan Evren
Kenan EvrenKenan Evren

Leave a Comment