ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey’s former army chief and president, Kenan Evren, who led a 1980 coup and came to symbolize the military’s decades-long dominance over politics, has died at 97, the state-run Anadolu news agency said Saturday.
Evren, who had been receiving treatment at a military hospital in Ankara, suffered multiple organ failure as a result of old age and was pronounced dead late Saturday, Anadolu said, without citing its sources.
Evren was sentenced to life in prison last June for leading the 1980 coup that resulted in widespread torture, arrests and deaths. He was too frail to attend court sessions, and age and sickness spared him from serving time behind bars.
Fifty people were executed and half a million arrested, hundreds died in jail, and many more disappeared in the years after the coup. Political parties were shut down and Evren went on to serve for seven years as president from 1982.
The coup left Turkey with a constitution drafted by the generals and viewed by many to this day as a brake on democratic development in the European Union candidate nation.
“He is dead but his legacy … lives on,” liberal columnist Kadri Gursel wrote on Twitter.
Evren never expressed regret for the coup. He said it saved NATO member Turkey from anarchy after thousands were killed in street fighting by militant left-wingers and rightists.
Apart from the need to end the killings on the streets, the 1980 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.
“Should we feed them in prison for years instead of hanging them?” Evren asked in a speech in 1984, defending the hanging of political activists after the army takeover.
Evren’s sentencing last year marked a strong symbolic moment in then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s taming of an army that had forced four governments from power in four decades.
Erdogan, who served a brief prison sentence himself for Islamist activity not long before he took office in 2003, won election as head of state last August and has made clear he wants to establish a full presidential system in Turkey.
Turkey’s generals were long considered the ultimate guarantors of the country’s secular constitution, a constant presence towering above political parties and leaders.
They mounted a coup in 1960 that led to the hanging of the prime minister and two other senior ministers, and staged two more takeovers in 1971 and 1980 to oust governments they saw as a threat to the secular order.
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 might but without seizing power outright.
Some secular military and civilian conservatives feared Erdogan’s moves to curb the military and rewrite the constitution were a drive towards a more Islamic order.
Erdogan has long denied such ambitions.