ISTANBUL — Turkey confronted a flashpoint of its divisive past on Wednesday when a court opened the trial of two elderly leaders of a 1980 military coup, yet the legal system that they implemented still steers the country despite advances toward full democracy.
The retired generals, Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, did not attend because they are ill, but the colorful scene outside the courthouse, where demonstrators from across the political spectrum held flags or portraits of people who died in the coup, reflected a nation's emotional trauma, surfacing a generation after tanks rolled into city streets.
"I was a 19-year-old with ideals for this country," Hasan Kaplan, a leftist who alleged he was tortured by the military, said on state television. "But we all know that there is a high price for having ideals in this country. I have been cleared of all charges ranging from murder to staging bomb attacks."
The trial is a showcase for Turkey, a rising power in the region and a leading critic of Syria's crackdown on its opposition, in its efforts to modernize, and bury military influence in politics once and for all. Turkey, whose candidacy for the European Union has stalled, is struggling to shed authoritarian habits embodied by the military-era constitution.
In a 2010 referendum, the government secured amendments to the 1982 constitution, which restricted freedoms and formalized the military's role in politics. But building consensus for a new code is slow amid disputes among political factions in Muslim-majority Turkey, whose electoral and economic records are nevertheless of envy in an unstable region.
President Abdullah Gul captured the redemptive mood when he declared an end to the era of military coups, saying the case "would lead to a very important change of mentality that no such attempts will occur in the future of Turkey."
But he acknowledged: "The country is still run under the constitution of an era that we criticize."
Wednesday was a day for imagery and memories, not calculations over Turkey's legal future. Television stations showed old black-and-white video of troops in steel helmets guarding lines of suspects, hands on heads. They showed footage of Evren when he was military chief of staff, sitting before a clutch of microphones and reading a statement about who was in charge of Turkey.
He was initially regarded as a hero by many Turks because the military takeover stopped deadly fighting between political extremists that pitched neighborhoods of major cities into virtual anarchy. Even today, many schools, gymnasiums and conference centers still carry his name, though there is a campaign to replace it with more palatable Turkish icons.
But Evren was accused of condoning the chaos in the years before the Sept. 12, 1980 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. Some 300 people died in prison, including 171 who died as a result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of 17-year-old Erdal Eren, whose hanging for allegedly killing a soldier horrified Turks.
"We did not forget, we did not forgive," read one protest banner outside the courthouse. A man brought a blindfold that he said he was forced to wear during torture.
Evren is well remembered for his public explanation for sending dozens of militants to the gallows: "Should we feed those terrorists instead of hanging them?"
Evren, 94, and Sahinkaya, 86, who was chief of the air force at the time, are the only two surviving members of the coup junta. They have been charged with crimes against the state and face possible life imprisonment, though their ill health raises questions about whether such a sentence could be imposed.
On Wednesday, the court postponed the reading of the indictment, which must be read in the presence of the defendants. It asked for an official medical report on the health of Evren and Sahinkaya.
Bulent Acar, a lawyer for Evren, quoted his family as saying the former president fell and broke his arm at a military hospital in Ankara where he was admitted in early March. He is reportedly suffering from heart and respiratory problems as well as diabetes, high blood pressure and stomach disorders.
Sahinkaya has long been treated at a military hospital in Istanbul for Parkinson's disease.
The government and Parliament, as well as several political parties, have said they will seek the court's permission to join the trial as plaintiffs along with hundreds of non-governmental organizations and citizens. The prosecution was made possible after the constitutional amendments in 2010 lifted the defendants' immunity.
Hundreds of people, including many active and retired officers, are standing trial separately in more recent alleged coup plots. The trials were welcomed by the public at first, but long imprisonments without verdicts and alleged irregularities by prosecutors have stirred claims that the government might be manipulating the legal process.
Kivanc Eliacik, 30, is the international secretary of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, an umbrella group banned for 12 years after the 1980 coup. He said he grew up with the coup's legacy in law and education, and described Evren's trial as "nonsense" because it doesn't address democratic deficits in Turkey, including limitations on workers' rights to strike.
"The coup d'etat wasn't just one day," Eliacik said. "It was a system, a process. We are still living in this process."
Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.