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Turkish court sentences 2 surviving leaders of 1980 military coup to life prison terms

FILE – In this Oct. 29, 1980 file photo, the leaders of Sept. 12 military coup, from left to right, Adm. Nejat Tumer, Gen. Nurettin Ersin, Gen. Kenan Evren, Gen. Tahsin Sahinkaya and Gen. Sedat Celasun stand during a ceremony at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey. A Turkish court in Ankara on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 has sentenced the two surviving leaders of the country's 1980 military coup to life in prison. The court found 97-year-old Kenan Evren and 89-year-old Tahsin Sahinkaya guilty of crimes against the state.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

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FILE – In this Oct. 29, 1980 file photo, the leaders of Sept. 12 military coup, from left to right, Adm. Nejat Tumer, Gen. Nurettin Ersin, Gen. Kenan Evren, Gen. Tahsin Sahinkaya and Gen. Sedat Celasun stand during a ceremony at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey. A Turkish court in Ankara on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 has sentenced the two surviving leaders of the country's 1980 military coup to life in prison. The court found 97-year-old Kenan Evren and 89-year-old Tahsin Sahinkaya guilty of crimes against the state.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

ANKARA, Turkey - In a showcase trial aimed at ending the military's interference in Turkish politics for good, a court on Wednesday convicted the only two surviving leaders of the country's 1980 military coup of crimes against the state and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Kenan Evren, 97, the military chief of staff who led the takeover and went on to serve as president until 1989, and Tahsin Sahinkaya, the 89-year-old former air force chief, had been on trial since 2012. They are the first coup leaders to be prosecuted in the country, where the military has overthrown three governments since the 1960s and pressured an Islamic-led government to quit in 1997.

The 1980 military takeover stopped deadly fighting between political extremists but also led to a wave of executions, torture and disappearances.

The two men — who did not attend the trial because of ill health and testified by video link from their hospital beds — will immediately appeal the verdict, their lawyer Burak Baskale told The Associated Press.

Their prosecution was made possible after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, intent on burying the military influence in Turkish politics, secured constitutional amendments in 2010 to revoke their immunity.

The court in Ankara on Wednesday also ruled that the two retired generals should be stripped of their military ranks, reducing them to privates, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

"Turkey needed to settle scores with past coups in order to get rid of the issue of coups," Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of Erdogan's ruling party told NTV television in an interview. "Although an appeal is possible, justice has been served."

Evren was initially regarded as a hero by many Turks because the Sept. 12, 1980, military takeover stopped the fighting. But he was later accused of condoning the chaos in the years before the coup and using it as an excuse for the military to step in and restore order. He shut down Parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties, then quit the military but became president until 1989.

Some 650,000 people were detained in the upheaval and 230,000 people were prosecuted in military courts, according to official figures. Around 300 people died in prison, including 171 as a result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of a 17-year-old.

Testifying in 2012, Evren described the coup as a necessary act that he would repeat under the same conditions.

Meanwhile, Turkey's highest court on Wednesday ruled in favour of 230 military officers who appealed their conviction last year of charges of attempting to topple Erdogan's government in 2003, paving the way for a possible re-trial.

The constitutional Court ruled that the officers' rights to a fair defence were violated. The military officers had long complained of unfair treatment, saying the court had rejected demands to call some defence witnesses and had ruled out of key evidence.

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