By Mert Ozkan and Ayla Jean Yackley
ANKARA (Reuters) - Former army chief Kenan Evren, 96, who came to symbolise the military's dominance over Turkish political life over decades, was sentenced to life in jail on Wednesday for leading a 1980 coup that resulted in widespread torture, arrests and deaths.
The sentencing of general Evren, even if age and sickness spare him from jail, marked a strong symbolic moment in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's taming of an army that had forced four governments from power in four decades.
Hundreds of officers were convicted in 2012 over the alleged "Sledgehammer" plot to topple him; but Turkey's top court ruled on Wednesday that the rights of 230 officers were violated in the case, opening the way for their potential retrial.
Evren, who also served as president after three years of military rule, never expressed regret for the coup. He said it saved NATO member Turkey from anarchy after thousands were killed in streetfighting by militant left-wingers and rightists.
"Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?" he asked in a speech in 1984, defending the hanging of political activists after the army take-over.
Fifty people were executed, some 500,000 were arrested, and many disappeared in a country which, bordering the Soviet Union, was on the front line of the Cold War.
Too frail to attend court sessions, Evren was sentenced to life in prison along with former Air Force chief Tahsin Sahinkaya, 89. Both were accused of setting the stage for an army intervention, then conducting the coup.
Some critics argued nationalist militants or U.S. agencies engineered street clashes to justify army action on September 12, 1980, an scenario echoed in the 2012 Sledgehammer trial. Officers then were accused of plotting to bomb mosques and trigger conflict with Greece to pave the way for a coup against Erdogan, viewed warily by the generals for his Islamist past.
Wednesday's constitutional court ruling on the Sledgehammer case could help facilitate conciliation between the prime minister - his primacy established - and the generals, nicknamed "Pashas" in a nod to Turkey's Ottoman past.
Celal Ulgen, a lawyer representing many defendants in the Sledgehammer case, said those convicted should now be released pending a possible retrial. Media reports said their release could begin as soon as Thursday.
Evren and Sahinkaya participated in the hearings via video links from military hospitals in Ankara and Istanbul. Media reports said the two former commanders would be stripped of their ranks as a result of the ruling.
Oral Calislar, a columnist for Radikal newspaper, was jailed for four years and spent another four as a fugitive after his arrest in 1980 for leading a legal left-wing party.
"This is the first time those who have staged a coup have been convicted. We had other coups, but those responsible continued to run the country with impunity," he said.
The generals were long considered ultimate guarantors of the country's secular constitution, a constant presence towering above political parties and leaders.
Their last successful intervention was in 1997 when they forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government from office through a combination of political pressure and display of military power but without seizing power outright.
That government was backed by the man who as prime minister has drawn on huge personal popularity to purge the officer corps and diminish the role of the military in political decision-making bodies. That process now appears irreversible though political enemies argue that having brought the generals to heel he himself is increasingly guilty of authoritarian conduct.
A 2010 amendment to the constitution, drafted by technocrats under Evren, lifted barriers to the trial of Evren and Sahinkaya.
Erdogan, who served a brief prison sentence himself for Islamist activity not long before he took office in 2003, is expected to seek the presidency in an August election in a move which is expected to consolidate his power.
Throughout the trial, Evren largely maintained a silence, watching proceedings by video link from his hospital bed. On Wednesday, he again declined to speak on his own behalf.
"It is not important whether they go to jail. What matters is that those behind the coup are held responsible for all of the uprooted lives and dozens who were executed," Calislar said.
It is unclear whether Evren and Sahinkaya will serve their sentences in prison due to their poor health.
"These were crimes against humanity but I have little faith they will pay because the coup is alive and well," said Naciye Babalik, a retired teacher who was arrested and tortured for belonging to a women's group that taught villagers how to read and write and lobbied for daycare at factories.
Babalik was a 41-year-old mother when, she says, soldiers stormed her home, blindfolded her and dragged her off in front of two small daughters. She spent the first week in a cramped cell where captors used electric shock in a failed bid to force her to confess to crimes such as collaboration with communists.
Erdogan's dominance of the political landscape and an erosion in freedom of expression and other rights means "our current state is the continuance of the September 12 coup," said Babalik, who wanted an international tribunal for Evren.
"That way I wouldn't die in disappointment. This way the wounds never heal. Every day I relive September 12."
(Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Ralph Boulton)