The trial began in Ankara Wednesday of two retired Turkish generals, Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, surviving leaders of Turkey's 1980 military putsch. It's being treated in Turkey a little like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission -- though without the reconciliation.
The September 12 coup, as it is known, proved a defining and reviled moment in Turkey's modern history. About 500 groups, institutions, individuals and political parties have applied to take part as co-plaintiffs in the case against the two men.
The generals deny any wrongdoing and from their public comments appear outraged by the very idea they should be brought to account in a civilian court. The two men face potential sentences of life without parole, but that's likely to be less a concern for them than the affront of conviction. Neither was in court Wednesday, because they were in hospital.
A number of columnists and commentators old enough to have been working in 1980 acknowledge they supported the generals when they first seized power. The country had been in a state of near anarchy. Thousands of young leftists and rightists died in gun battles on the streets during the years before the coup.
But the repression that followed was brutal. Thousands were rounded up, imprisoned and subjected to summary justice by military tribunals. Hundreds are believed to have died in captivity. The use of torture was widespread and 49 people were executed. Even that record can't fully explain the level of bitterness still felt toward the two aging leaders.
Although Evren and the military handed power back to civilian politicians in 1982, they also drew up a new constitution that has distorted the nation ever since. The document effectively legitimized oppression of the devoutly religious, ethnic Kurds and liberals alike, and enshrined the military's role as the ultimate source of power in Turkey. Usefully for Evren, the constitution also immunized the coup's leaders from prosecution. But amendments in 2010 (approved in a referendum on the coup's 30th anniversary) made Wednesday's trial possible.
The trial is an important piece of symbolism and ultimately healthy for a country that, for all the talk of being a model for others in the region, still seethes with resentments over the past. For the government, though, it's also a handy distraction from the present. The ruling Justice and Development Party is under rising criticism for democratic abuses on its own watch, such as the jailing of about 100 journalists, more than 200 military officers and others in trials of sometimes dubious foundation.
The government promised before its re-election last June to draft a new constitution to replace Evren's 1982 document once and for all. But the timetable for doing so slipped badly when Justice and Development fell just short of the landslide needed to be able to adopt a new constitution without agreement from any other parties in parliament.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had wanted to create a presidential system, allowing him to move from the post of prime minister to president while keeping full control of government, in what would be a Putinesque shuffle. That kind of change is now out of the question. Erdogan and his party appear to have little stomach for making the compromises to create a new basic law that would have support from the opposition.
That could change, and Turkey may still get its new constitution. But increasingly it looks as though Evren's law may remain in force for years to come. After all, the general -- who served as president from 1980 to 1989 -- interpreted the president's constitutional powers widely when he had the job. Erdogan, should he run for president as expected in 2014, could do the same.
(Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)
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