ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Kenan Evren, the Turkish general who led a 1980 coup that ended years of violence but whose rule 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 and his family was called to his side.
Evren was hailed as a hero at the time of the coup for ending fighting between rightists and leftists that left some 5,000 people dead and put the country on the brink of a civil war. But he later 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 today still scrambling to change the constitution he helped institute.
Last year, Evren was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment, becoming the first general to be tried and convicted for leading a coup in Turkey which has a history of military takeovers.
The trial was made possible after the Islamic-rooted government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured constitutional amendments in a 2010 referendum. It was intended as a showcase trial that would help put an end to the military's interventions once and for all.
Too frail to attend the trial, Evren testified from his hospital bed and said: "We did what was right at the time and if it happened today we would carry out a coup again."
Evren, the head of the Turkish military, sent tanks rolling through the streets at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1980, wresting power from a civilian government that was unable to keep order. It was the country's third coup since 1960.
A vast majority of Turks welcomed the coup at the time. In urban centers, soldiers dismantled checkpoints manned by militias. Civilians were no longer afraid to send their children to schools and the economy, which had nearly ground to a halt, had a chance to recover.
But soldiers also rounded up some 650,000 people, most of them leftist militants. Torture was common and at least 299 people died in the jails.
Evren said that torture was not sanctioned by the military.
"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.
Forty-nine people, mostly leftist militants, were executed after being convicted by military tribunals.
When asked about the hangings, Evren responded: "Should we feed them instead?"
Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2000 as part of reforms to join the European Union.
Evren indicated in 1982 that the military was getting weary of stepping in to repair damage caused by incompetent politicians.
"We want to extricate ourselves from position of washers of the pots they (civilian politicians) dirty. We want to return to the task of defending the country," he declared.
Evren's junta ruled until November 1983 when the generals voluntarily reinstated civilian rule. Evren, however, remained in power after being elected to a seven-year term as president in a 1982 referendum.
The same referendum also approved the new constitution, which restricted labor unions and freedom of association, put universities, which were the scene of violence in the 1970s, under strict state control, and muzzled freedom of expression.
It also 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 the mistakes that led to the civil strife of the 1970s.
Evren set 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 running.
On the eve of the elections, Evren all but told voters to cast their ballot in favor of a retired general who headed one of the three parties. That backfired and Turgut Ozal, a liberal whom Evren had put in charge of the economy, won an overwhelming majority, ushering 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: Demirel as president and Ecevit as prime minister.
In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Evren's takeover, Turks approved in a referendum 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.
Evren was born in Alasehir, western Turkey, the son of immigrants from the Balkans. He graduated from the country's war college in 1938, and later served in the Turkish contingent that fought with U.N. forces in the Korean War. He was promoted to general in 1964 and rose to the top military rank in 1978.
After his retirement, he moved to the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris where he took up painting.
Evren's wife, Sekine, died in 1982. He is survived by three daughters. Funeral plans were not immediately announced.