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ANKARA, Turkey – Kenan Evren, the general who led Turkey's 1980 military coup that ended years of street-clashes between rival left- and right-wing militias and but also unleashed a wave of arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings died on Saturday. He was 97.
The ailing former general who later ruled as president for seven years, died at Ankara's GATA military hospital, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported, hours after he was placed on a respirator due to multiple organ failure and his family and lawyers were called to his side.
Evren was hailed as a hero at the time of the coup for ending fighting that had left some 5,000 people dead and put the country on the brink of a civil war. But he soon became one of the country's most controversial figures, remembered more for the torture of former militants and their supporters and for introducing a constitution that restricted freedoms and formalized the military's role in politics.
Turkish political leaders are still scrambling to replace the constitution he helped institute.
Last year, Evren, alongside the only other surviving member of the 1980 coup, was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment, the first generals to be tried and convicted of leading a coup in Turkey which has a history of military takeovers. The court decision stripped him of his military title and demoted him to the rank of a private.
The trial was made possible after the Islamic-rooted government of then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured constitutional amendments in a 2010 referendum, in the hope that the showcase trial would help put an end to the military's interventions once and for all.
Evren, the head of the Turkish military, sent tanks rolling through the streets of the capital at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1980, wresting power from a civilian government that was unable to keep order and dismantling checkpoints manned by battling militias. He shut down Parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties.
It was the country's third coup since 1960 and was welcomed by a vast majority of Turks, who were no longer afraid to send their children to school and benefited from the rebound of an economy that had nearly ground to a halt.
Yet 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.
"The military intervention took place at a time when brothers were fighting each other," Halil Sivgin, who served as health minister in the late 1980s, told NTV television. "Anyone who lived through the conditions of the time knows that everyone was waiting for the military to intervene. (Evren) was later much criticized and prosecuted."
Celalettin Can, a spokesman for an advocacy group who was imprisoned during the coup, said: "A whole generation was destroyed. Turkey's future was darkened."
Evren always maintained that torture was not sanctioned by the military, although it was not clear what, if anything, he did to address it.
"It may have happened, but neither the (military-appointed) government nor the (military) council gave a directive for torture, torment or oppression," Evren said in a documentary on the coup.
Some 49 people were executed, including 17-year-old Erdal Eren, whose hanging for allegedly killing a soldier horrified Turks. Evren was unapologetic.
"So, after I catch them and send them to trial, I will not execute them but look after them for the rest of their lives? I will feed this traitor who kills the soldier that gives his life for the land? Would you accept that?" Evren said in 1984. Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2000 as part of reforms to join the European Union.
Evren's five-member military council ruled until November 1983 when the generals handed back power to civilians. Evren quit the military but remained in power after ensuring that he was elected president for seven years in a 1982 referendum. The same referendum also approved a new constitution, which restricted labor unions and freedom of association, put universities — which were scene of violence in the 1970s — under strict state control, and muzzled freedom of expression.
It gave the military political influence through the National Security Council, a forum of generals and top political leaders that still meets every two months to discuss internal and foreign affairs. A special clause ensured that no criminal charges could be brought against the coup leaders.
Evren defended the constitution, saying it was designed to avoid mistakes that led to the civil strife of the 1970s.
Evren set parliamentary elections for 1983 — but only allowed three parties with carefully vetted leaders to run. Former leaders such as Suleyman Demirel, who was ousted by the coup and former premier Bulent Ecevit, whom he also blamed for the country's ills, were barred from politics and could not run for the post of prime minister.
On the eve of the elections in 1983, Evren all but told voters to cast their ballot in favor of a retired general who headed one of the three parties running. That backfired and Turgut Ozal, a liberal whom Evren had put in charge of the economy, was elected prime minister after winning an overwhelming majority, and ushered in an era of economic liberalism.
To Evren's dismay, another referendum, in 1987, lifted the ban on old politicians and both Demirel and Ecevit returned to politics.
In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Evren's takeover, Turks voted in a referendum to a series of amendments to the constitution, lifting the coup leaders' immunity from prosecution. Human rights activists rushed to petition courts for Evren's prosecution the next day.
The trial against Evren and former Air Force Commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, the other surviving coup leader, opened in April 2012. Both men were too ill to attend but gave brief statements to the court through a video link system from their hospital beds.
During the proceedings, Evren refused to answer prosecutors' questions, maintaining that the court had no right to put him on trial but made a brief statement saying the military was forced to intervene and introduce a "new constitutional order to bring peace and calm."
"The Sept. 12 movement was a historic event," he said. "Historic events cannot be put on trial. They are examined scientifically."
"The great Turkish nation did not deserve to live through the (pre-coup) events," He said. "We did what was right at the time and if it happened today we would carry out a military coup again."
Evren was born in Alasehir, western Turkey, the son of emigrants from the Balkans. He graduated from the country's war college in 1938, and later served in the Turkish contingent that fought in the Korean War.
He was promoted to general in 1964 and was appointed Chief of Military Staff in 1978.
After his retirement, he moved to the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris where he took up painting, but returned to Ankara when he became too frail, so that he could be near the capital's military hospital.
Evren's wife, Sekine Evren, died in 1982. He is survived by three daughters. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.