It was 50 years ago today, May 27th, that the first military coup took place in Turkey. President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and others were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death. In September 1961 Menderes and two of his ministers were hanged. Bayar’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The trials against the politicians took place in a sports hall on Yassiada, a small island close to Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. The ‘Young Civilians’, a group of young activists that protests military intervention in Turkish politics with striking and often funny actions, organized a boat trip to Yassiada. On board were journalists and relatives of politicians who were on trial at the time.
The sports hall on Yassiada turned out to be totally dilapidated. What needs to be done with this place? The Young Civilians are campaigning to renovate it and to turn it into a museum. But when I talked about it with Emine Gürsoy, granddaughter of Celal Bayar, she said she was actually pleased with the dilapidated state of it all: ‘It resembles the horrible things that happened here. This place deserves to be in this horrible state.’
Emine Gürsoy, who is a professor of Literature at Marmara University in Istanbul, also doesn’t want any apology from the people who staged the coup (of whom two are still alive). ‘An apology wouldn’t cause me any emotion whatsoever.’ Gürsoy has problems with the often heard statement that it was wrong to put the politicians on trial and to hang Menderes and two of his ministers. ‘It implies that the coup d’état was a good thing and that only the trials and death penalties were wrong.’ It should be recognized, she says, that all the events of 1960 and 1961 were wrong, both the coup and the trials and executions.
2. Wrong choices
Emine Gürsoy says she feels intense pain when she visits Yassiada – the island is not open to the public, but she visited it before, one time with the Young Civilians, who don’t get special permission to visit Yassiada but are anyway not stopped from mooring there and getting ashore. But Gürsoy also feels a strong will to fight the mentality of the army to grasp power. This mentality first showed itself in 1960. Gürsoy: ‘The junta in fact said to the people: what you say and who you vote for doesn’t count, because you are ignorant and make wrong choices. The military still has this mentality, and they have staged coups and tried to stage coups more often.’
She feels there is still the possibility of a coup in Turkey today. Why? ‘Some of the military personnel now on trial over Ergenekon and other alleged coup plans were very young soldiers and officers at the time of the 1960 coup. They were for example guards during the trials on Yassiada. They are brought up in the army with the mentality to mingle in politics and to take over power.’
This mentality was laid down in the military constitution in 1961, a constitution that is many times mentioned as having been very liberal and giving a lot of rights to the people. Emine Gürsoy: ‘But the MGK, the National Security Council, was introduced in the 1961 constitution. The MGK gave the army absolute power over politics. The MGK is less powerful nowadays, but in 1961 the power of the military over the people was institutionalized, and we still suffer from that today.’
3. Old age
In the end, Celal Bayar was not put to death, like Adnan Menderes. Officially that is because he was too old, but Emine Gürsoy disputes that. ‘Before the trials, people above 65 years of age could not be sentenced to death, but the military rulers quickly changed that law when the trial against my grandfather started. He was 67 at the time. The whole trial was set up to sentence him and the others to death. That is also why my grandfather was accused of high treason: that was the only thing that a President could be put to death for.’
Gürsoy has more reason to believe the outcome of the trial was known before it ended. ‘The executions’, she says, ‘would take place at another island in the Sea of Marmara, Imrali, the island where Abdullah Öcalan is imprisoned now. Some months before the trial ended, letters were sent to the authorities at Imrali to start preparing for the hangings. You see, there are no trees at Imrali, so a gallows had to be constructed.’
Emine Gürsoy believes that in the end, the military junta was afraid to actually put Celal Bayar to death. Bayar fought in the war of independence, he was an active politician at the beginning of the republic and was appointed Prime Minister by Atatürk in 1937. Gürsoy: ‘The military just couldn’t kill one of the founders of the republic.’
Celal Bayar spent a few years in a prison in Kayseri till he was released in 1964 due to ‘poor health’. In the end, he died at the respectable age of 103. Emine Gürsoy: ‘I know that my grandfather was loved by the people in the ten years of his Presidency. That is enough for me to know that he has so much more importance than the military junta that sentenced him to death.’