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Turkey sentences 1980 coup leaders to life in prison

A Turkish court on Wednesday handed life sentences to two ageing generals behind a 1980 military takeover, the bloodiest in Turkey's coup-ridden history.

ANKARA: A Turkish court on Wednesday handed life sentences to two ageing generals behind a 1980 military takeover, the bloodiest in Turkey's coup-ridden history.

Kenan Evren, 96, and Tahsin Sahinkaya, 89, were found guilty of setting the stage for a military intervention, ousting the civilian government by force and committing acts against the forces of the state.

Prosecutors had demanded so-called aggravated life sentences for Evren, who became president after the coup, and Sahinkaya, the former air force commander -- which would have placed harsher conditions on their detention.

The ruling sparked cheers and applause from the public gallery inside the courtroom, who chanted: "This is just the beginning, the coup authors will pay the price".

The generals, who have now been stripped of their ranks, seized power on September 12, 1980 but were only brought to trial in 2012 after the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party introduced constitutional changes.

Evren and Sahinkaya, who are being treated at military hospitals in Ankara and Istanbul respectively, appeared via video screens for Wednesday's hearing.

The two have been unable to attend any hearings because of their poor health. They told the judge they had "nothing to add".

Their lawyer, Bulent Acar, denounced the charges.

"This court is not competent to judge the suspects," he said, adding with a hint of irony that the "suspects are being tried according to the constitution that was drafted during the incriminated period."

Although there have been amendments in the intervening years, the constitution introduced by the junta in 1982 is still in force, despite being criticised as "draconian" by subsequent critics.

It is not yet clear if the former generals -- who appeared feeble over the video link -- will actually serve their sentences in prison, and they may yet appeal the ruling.

In his first testimony in 2012, Evren had said he had no remorse over his actions and that it was "the right thing to do at that time".

"If I had to re-do it all again, I would do the same thing. The Turkish armed forces on 12 September 1980 accomplished their duty to the people."

Outside the Ankara court on Wednesday, a crowd of about 200 protesters held pictures of people who were executed or died in jail during the military rule that followed the coup. A large banner read: "We don't forgive we don't forget September 12".

- "Never recovered" -

Turkey's once-powerful army, which considers itself the self-appointed guardian of the secular regime, has staged three coups since 1960 and forced out an Islamic government in 1997.

The 1980 coup was the bloodiest in Turkey's modern history, with 50 people executed while dozens died from torture. Some 600,000 were arrested and many others went missing.

"We can never repair the suffering caused by this coup but it's a start," said Nevzat Er, a teacher in his fifties who was tortured under the junta. "I lost my health and my job, I have never totally recovered from these things."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent the best part of his 11 years in power trying to curb the military's influence through a series of trials, one of which resulted in more than 300 military officers being put behind bars for alleged coup plots.

Erdogan has sought to mend fences with the army as he fights for political survival in a bitter feud with his ally-turned-opponent Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding a graft scandal to try to topple him.

In a gesture towards the army, parliament in February abolished specially-appointed courts that convicted dozens of army officers, paving the way for retrials.

In a separate but related ruling on Wednesday, Turkey's top court ruled that the rights of 230 military officers sentenced to long prison terms in 2012 were violated, local media reported.

The judgement by the Constitutional Court challenged some of the witness statements and evidence used against the officers in the highly publicised Sledgehammer trial, opening the way for a retrial, according to government press agency Anatolia.

In September 2012, a tribunal in Silivri near Istanbul handed down sentences of between 13 and 20 years to 326 officers for seeking to overthrow Erdogan's government.

The officers were accused of plotting to foment unrest with attacks on mosques and sending planes to provoke a conflict with Greece that would provide the pretext for a coup.

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