By Ece Toksabay
ANKARA (Reuters) - Retired General Kenan Evren, symbol of an era when the military dominated Turkish politics, goes on trial on Wednesday for his role leading a 1980 coup that shaped the country for three decades until reforms cut back the power of the "Pashas".
Fifty people were executed, half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared in three years of military rule following the September 12, 1980 coup, Turkey's third in 20 years.
More than 30 years later, an Ankara court will begin hearing the case against 94-year-old Evren, who went on to serve as president, as well as against the other surviving architect of that military takeover, former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87.
With the silver-haired Evren now frail, it is unlikely he will appear in court. The prosecutor's office has said it could hear the testimonies of Evren and Sahinkaya via video link. Evren recently underwent intestinal surgery and Turkish media reported on Tuesday that he had also broken an arm.
Evren's trial, unimaginable only a few years ago, will be watched closely by hundreds of military, including top serving and retired commanders, as well as by civilians being tried now as members of the alleged "Ergenekon" and "Sledgehammer" coup conspiracies against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
The generals, known widely by their Ottoman title of "Pasha", traditionally saw themselves as the guardians of a secular order set up by soldier-statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. They mounted a coup in 1960, which saw the hanging of the prime minister and two other senior ministers, and then again in 1971 and 1980 to oust governments they saw as a threat to that order.
Each time the coups restored a revised form of democracy, and as recently as 1997 the army forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government to resign.
For some, the military's constant interventions have stunted the development of a mature political class, while the 1980 coup bequeathed a constitution viewed by many as an additional brake on democratic development.
Some secularist conservatives in military and civilian circles also see Erdogan's moves to cut back the power of the military, reform the judiciary and rewrite the constitution as a move to establish an Islamic order. Erdogan, first elected to power in 2002, denies such ambitions.
It was a recent constitutional amendment that ended Evren's immunity from prosecution over the coup.
Evren says he does not regret the coup, arguing it restored order after years of chaos in which 5,000 died in left-right street violence. "Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?" he said in a speech in 1984, a year after the army handed back rule to a civilian government.
On Tuesday, Erdogan's government, the opposition and parliament joined at least 350 individuals and groups applying to be co-plaintiffs in the trial as aggrieved parties, meaning their grievances will be taken into account during the prosecution and possible sentencing phase.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the government had decided it should join the long list of those wronged.
"The first and most important injured party of the coups in Turkey have been the government legitimately representing the nation," Erdogan said in his weekly speech to his parliamentary party On Tuesday. "We will follow the case closely."
The 1980 coup leaders argue they were forced to intervene to restore order after years of chaos.
In the wake of the revolution in Iran, they were also worried by what they saw as the rising Islamist threat to the secular republic.
The country remains haunted by those traumatic times, when virtually the entire political class was rounded up and interned.
Citing the ruling AK Party's spokesman Huseyin Celik, Turkish newspaper Radikal on Tuesday said the authorities were removing the names of key figures in the 1980 and previous military coups from schools, streets, stadiums and military barracks "in a coup house cleaning".
"We need to erase the names of coup plotters from public institutions and from the names of places," Celik said. "They've already been struck from people's hearts."
(Writing by Jonathon Burch and Jon Hemming; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)