The May 27, 1960 coup leaders had prosecuted prominent members of the Democratic Party (DP), including Celal Bayar and Adnan Menderes, on Yassıada through the High Court of Justice they had established in violation of the principle of the “natural judge.”
Although the trials were conducted under different names, the most important case was the “Constitutional Violation Case.” Indeed, in this case, fifteen death sentences would be handed down by “judges under the command of the coup plotters.”
CONSTITUTIONAL VIOLATION CASE
The primary goal of the Yassıada trials was to legitimize the May 27 coup and the National Unity Committee (MBK) formed by the coup plotters. This situation led to the transformation of issues that lacked credibility on Yassıada but could discredit Bayar and Menderes in the eyes of the public into trial subjects.
The “dog case” against Bayar and the “baby case” against Menderes were opened for this purpose. Although the baby case resulted in acquittal, Bayar and Agriculture Minister Nedim Ökmen were sentenced for abuse of power in the dog case.
From the very beginning, the coup plotters embarked on an intense propaganda campaign with the support of the media to explain the legitimacy of the coup to the public. Newspapers published new allegations every day, portraying the “evil” of the DP government, with these claims being reiterated by General Cemal Gürsel, one of the coup leaders.
Among these allegations were plans to annihilate Military Academy students, selling Kars and Ardahan to the Russians, the DP government’s attempts to incite civil war in the country, and secretly assassinating hundreds of university students demonstrating in Beyazıt Square in Istanbul, burying their bodies in undisclosed locations, and even processing some into minced meat at Meat and Fish Corporation facilities.
On Yassıada, the ten-year rule of the DP government was scrutinized in every aspect. The covert allowances used by Menderes for a decade were turned into a case, and the events of September 6-7 were brought back to trial five years later.
The most important trial of the proceedings was the “Constitutional Violation Case with File Number 1960/1.” In fact, various cases heard on Yassıada were consolidated into this case. Interestingly, the charge of “violating the constitution” against DP members was made the day after the coup.
The trials of the Constitutional Violation Case began on October 14, 1960, and lasted until August 14, 1961. The verdict was announced on September 15, 1961. In this case, all DP MPs and Bayar were prosecuted. As evidence, the memory books of Menderes government ministers Şem’i Ergin and Etem Menderes were included in the indictment.
WHAT WERE THE ACCUSATIONS?
According to the indictment, DP under the leadership of Bayar and Menderes had violated the 1924 Constitution in many ways. The punishment for this was defined in Article 146 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), stating that “those who attempt to change, abolish, or undermine the entire or part of the Constitution of the Turkish Republic or prevent the Grand National Assembly, established by this law, from performing its duties by force, shall be sentenced to death.”
The chief prosecutor of the Yassıada trials, Ömer Altay Egesel, born in Balıkesir-Susurluk in 1923, had applied to become a DP member of parliament in Balıkesir for the 1954 elections but was not nominated, even losing in the candidate pre-selection process. Egesel evaluated being a DP member as a crime in the indictment, driven by his anti-DP sentiment.
One of the main accusations in this case was related to the transfer of CHP properties to the Treasury in 1951 and 1953 through laws. Additionally, allegations included the conversion of Kırşehir, won by the Democrat Party, into a district after the 1954 elections, violating the independence of the judiciary, hindering parliamentary debates by amending the parliamentary regulations, attempting to abolish the constitution by establishing an Investigation Commission, and making antidemocratic changes to the Assembly and Election Law.
The process of transferring CHP’s properties to the Treasury had occurred in two stages. In 1951, the “Law No. 5830 Regarding the Inability of Official Institutions and Establishments to Transfer Real Estate Assets to Political Parties and the Return of Real Estate Assets Owned by Dissolved Associations to Political Parties” was enacted. In 1953, the “Law No. 6195 Regarding the Return of the Unjust Gains of the Republican People’s Party” was enacted, thus completing the process.
The violation of judicial independence was based on the amendment made to Article 39 of the Retirement Fund Law on June 21, 1954, allowing judges and prosecutors to be retired against their will and prohibiting the right to object to this decision. It is clear that this law increased the influence of the DP government on the judiciary. Moreover, the law opened the way for the retirement of judges and prosecutors who had completed twenty-five years in office, and those who were retired had no right to appeal.
The Menderes government had transformed Nevşehir, a district under the province of Niğde, into a province and attached Kırşehir to it a few months after the 1954 elections, seeking revenge because it had failed to elect a member of parliament from Kırşehir. This was one of the accusations in the Constitutional Violation Case.
A similar practice was carried out for Malatya in the same year by turning Adıyaman, which was an ilçe (district) of Malatya until then, into a province and attaching a part of Malatya to it. This aimed to impose such a bill on Malatya, which supported the CHP. However, only Kırşehir would be discussed on Yassıada. Menderes probably regretted this practice, as he would revert Kırşehir to a province in 1957.
THE PROCESS LEADING TO EXECUTIONS
Another accusation against DP members on Yassıada was related to changes made to the Election Law. Before the 1957 elections, CHP, the Liberty Party formed by defectors from DP, and Bölükbaşı’s (Leader of the People’s Party) party had started attempts to merge under the roof of CHP.
The aim was to defeat DP, which had won two consecutive elections, in the 1957 elections. To prevent this, the Menderes government amended the Election Law. According to the Election Law, male and female Turkish citizens over the age of thirty could run as candidates for parliament.
With the amendment published in the Official Gazette on September 13, 1957, it was stipulated that “a person who has applied for candidacy for a political party cannot independently nominate themselves in any electoral district in that election or be nominated and elected by another party.” Additionally, it was stated that “…those who have not left the political parties they belonged to at least six months before the election date cannot be nominated by another political party” and these regulations prevented other party members from being nominated from CHP lists in the October 27, 1957 elections.
In 1956, the DP government had also enacted the “Law on Meetings and Demonstrations” (No. 6761). This law limited the meetings and demonstrations of political parties to election periods. However, it was claimed during the trials that this law was applied unilaterally by the DP government and that it violated people’s freedom of life, property, and travel.
The most significant accusations in the Constitutional Violation Case were related to the Investigation Commission. The proposal to establish the Commission had caused major debates in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) due to the strong reaction from CHP. The reason was to investigate the destructive activities of both CHP and the press, as they were accused of involving the military in politics, inciting the public against the government, and arming certain groups to exert pressure on the government.
CHP leader İsmet İnönü had made his famous speech indicating the coup during these debates and had said: “… If a regime of oppression is established, a revolution will definitely occur! Such a possibility is outside of us; it will be done by those who have no relation to us! If you continue on this path, I cannot save you. Now, friends, when the conditions are right, a revolution is a legitimate right for nations. The revolution will be used as a legitimate right. It is impossible to abstain from it…”
Following the decision to establish the Commission, all political party and group meetings and congresses were suspended, and all publications other than the TBMM minutes were banned. After these decisions, the Extraordinary Powers Law (No. 7468), which granted extraordinary powers to the Investigation Commission, was passed on April 27. This law was interpreted as the declaration of a dictatorship. As the first application of this law, ten newspapers, two magazines, and the printing houses where they were printed were closed down. Even the publication of news about the closure of Akis magazine was prohibited.
Based on these accusations, four hundred five DP members were tried, and fifteen of them were sentenced to death. The death sentence for Celal Bayar, which had been passed, was commuted to life imprisonment by the National Unity Committee (MBK) due to his old age. Furthermore, MBK commuted the sentences of Refik Koraltan, Agah Erozan, İbrahim Kirazoğlu, Ahmet Hamdi Sancar, Nusret Kirişçioğlu, Bahadır Dülger, Emin Kalafat, Baha Akşit, Osman Kavrakoğlu, Zeki Erataman, and Rüştü Erdelhun, the last Chief of General Staff of the DP government, to life imprisonment.
The death sentences were carried out for DP’s former Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan on September 16, 1961, while former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed on September 17, 1961.
The practices mentioned above were presented as evidence that the DP had violated the constitution, and the harshness of the sentences, especially the death sentences, is clear. The Yassıada court, acting under the orders of the coup leaders, dealt a severe blow to Turkish political life by executing a prime minister and two ministers, making it one of the most significant obstacles to Turkey’s transition to a true democracy.
References: High Court of Justice Minutes Constitutional Violation Case (1960/1); Official Gazette, August 11, 1951, Issue No. 7882; December 16, 1953, Issue No. 8584; June 9, 1956, Issue No. 9346; September 13, 1957, Issue No. 9705; TBMM Proceedings, Volume 11, Volume 18, April 18, 1960; Topçu, İ., Topçu, S. (2017), “Adnan Menderes’ Trial and Execution”, Academic Perspective, No. 61, pp. 59-80; Yıldız, T. N. (2022), Yassıada Court: Four People Tried in the Constitutional Violation Case, Siirt University Graduate Thesis, Siirt.