Kenan Evren, the Turkish general who led a 1980 coup that ended years of violence but whose rule unleashed a wave of arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, died Saturday. He was 97.
The ailing former general, who ruled as president for seven years, died at GATA military hospital in Ankara, the nation's capital. He died hours after he was placed on a respirator and his family was called to his side, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
Evren was hailed as a hero at the time of the coup for ending fighting between rightists and leftists that left about 5,000 people dead and put the country on the brink of a civil war. But he later became one of the country's most controversial figures, remembered more for the torture of former militants and their supporters and for introducing a constitution that restricted freedoms and formalized the military's role in politics.
Turkish political leaders are today still scrambling to change the constitution he helped institute.
Last year, Evren was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment, becoming the first general to be tried and convicted for leading a coup in Turkey, which has a history of military takeovers.
The trial was made possible after the Islamic-rooted government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured constitutional amendments in a 2010 referendum. It was intended as a showcase trial that would help put an end to the military's interventions once and for all.
Too frail to attend the trial, Evren testified from his hospital bed and said: "We did what was right at the time, and if it happened today we would carry out a coup again."
Evren, the head of the Turkish military, sent tanks rolling through the streets at 4 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1980, wresting power from a civilian government that was unable to keep order. It was the country's third coup since 1960.
A vast majority of Turks welcomed the coup at the time. In urban centers, soldiers dismantled checkpoints manned by militias. Civilians were no longer afraid to send their children to schools and the economy, which had nearly ground to a halt, had a chance to recover.
Forty-nine people, mostly leftist militants, were executed after being convicted by military tribunals.
When asked about the hangings, Evren responded: "Should we feed them instead?"
Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2000 as part of reforms to join the European Union.
Evren's junta ruled until November 1983, when the generals voluntarily reinstated civilian rule. Evren, however, remained in power after being elected to a seven-year term as president in a 1982 referendum.
The same referendum also approved the new constitution, which restricted labor unions and freedom of association, put universities, which were the scene of violence in the 1970s, under strict state control, and muzzled freedom of expression.
Evren defended the constitution, saying it was designed to avoid the mistakes that led to the civil strife of the 1970s.
In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Evren's takeover, Turks approved in a referendum a series of amendments to the constitution, lifting the coup leaders' immunity from prosecution. Human rights activists rushed to petition courts for Evren's prosecution the next day.
Evren was born in Alasehir, western Turkey, the son of immigrants from the Balkans. He graduated from the country's war college in 1938 and later served in the Turkish contingent that fought with U.N. forces in the Korean War. He was promoted to general in 1964 and rose to the top military rank in 1978.
After his retirement, he moved to the Mediterranean coastal town of Marmaris, where he took up painting.
Evren's wife, Sekine, died in 1982. He is survived by three daughters.
Fraser writes for the Associated Press