By Ozge Ozbilgin
ANKARA (Reuters) - A retired Turkish general who seized power in 1980, sending thousands to jail and to the gallows, faced a court on Tuesday by video link from hospital, looking ill and gaunt, in a trial marking a watershed in Turkey's emergence from army domination.
Kenan Evren, who governed as President into the late 1980s, says the coup was necessary to save a country beset by street fighting. Virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned, thousands were tortured and many more disappeared.
The 95-year old, dressed in a black jumper, a sheet pulled up over his legs, cut a brittle figure, a shadow of the strongman who led Turkey for nine years.
His cheeks sunken, he appeared tired and expressionless, giving little indication of whether he understood what was being said in the courtroom as the indictment against him was read.
A nurse helped him lie up in bed and he leant over occasionally to consult a lawyer sat in his room at an Ankara military hospital. He spoke to confirm his father's and mother's names, date and place of birth as the court went through the formality of confirming his identity.
He gave his monthly income as 13,330 Turkish lira ($7,400).
Turkey remains haunted by the coup, its third in 20 years. Evren's appearance on television screens in court epitomized how far the country has come in taming a once all-powerful military.
Victims' lawyers have said Evren should be treated no differently to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Both were forced to appear in court, one on a bed behind bars, the other in a wheelchair.
The once-dominant secularist generals have seen their power and prestige eroded sharply over the last decade in the course of a series of coup trials and political reforms under the rule of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party.
A Turkish court in September sentenced more than 300 military officers to jail for plotting to overthrow Erdogan's government almost a decade ago in a trial that underscored civilian dominance over the armed forces.
Evren has said he does not regret the coup, arguing it restored order after years of chaos in which 5,000 people were killed in street violence between leftist and right-wing groups.
He was not expected to give testimony until Wednesday at the earliest, which will be the second of three days of hearings.
Many Turkish secularists broadly supported the reining in of the army, but argue that coup conspiracy trials have been used as a pretext to round up scores of the government's political opponents and create a climate of fear.
Judges previously accepted requests by political parties, parliament and trade unions to be co-plaintiffs in the case, but there was skepticism from some about whether the Evren trial would bring justice to the victims of the coup.
Former minister Yasar Okuyan, who was among thousands jailed after the coup, was also dismissive of the trial, which attracted little public interest at the court house in Ankara.
"This is just a theatre ... This is a 30-year-old problem, a legal solution will not emerge. It's a government show," Okuyan told Reuters outside the courtroom.
In April, the court rejected an appeal by prosecutors to arrest Evren, disappointing victims who had hoped his detention would guarantee he appeared in court in person. His ill health precluded such an appearance.
Also appearing on the split screen television was the other defendant, retired air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, who was being treated at an Istanbul military hospital.
The generals long saw it as their right to intervene in political affairs and if necessary topple the government to safeguard the secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after 1923.
Apart from the need to end the killings, the coup leaders were also worried by what they saw as a rising Islamist threat to the secular republic following the 1979 Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran. ($1 = 1.7978 Turkish liras)
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton)