The remains of Turkey’s former President Turgut Ozal have been exhumed from an Istanbul grave in a bid to determine whether the former leader was poisoned.
Amid heavy security mechanical diggers dug up his grave from within a grand mausoleum in an Istanbul cemetery on Tuesday, on the orders of prosecutors investigating suspicions of foul play in his death 19 years ago.
“The corpse was in its place, everything went as planned, no problem arose“
– Turan Colakkadi,
Ozal, who led Turkey out of military rule in the 1980s and drove far-reaching economic reform, died of heart failure in April 1993 at an Ankara hospital at the age of 65, and while in office.
Relatives and associates voiced suspicions he had been poisoned.
A Muslim cleric was present at the exhumation, which lasted seven hours. Ozal’s remains were placed in a zinc-coated coffin which was wrapped in the Turkish flag and carried by police officers in formal uniforms to a municipal hearse.
Police on motorcycles escorted the hearse to the forensics institute in an outlying district of the city.
Forensic teams led by Istanbul’s Chief Prosecutor Turan Colakkadi, will investigate whether any poisonous substances are present in the remains.
“The corpse was in its place, everything went as planned, no problem arose,” Colakkadi said.
The autopsy is expected to be completed by the end of the week, when the remains would be returned to the Ozal family, the head of the state forensic medicine institute, Haluk Ince, told reporters.
Ince said it would take at least two months for the forensic institute to complete its report, after which the findings would be sent to the state prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors decided two weeks ago that Ozal’s remains should be exhumed and an autopsy held after a state supervisory board, acting on the order of incumbent President Abdullah Gul, produced a report in June voicing suspicions about his death – citing the lack of a post-mortem at the time of death, as well as missing blood test results.
After a period of military rule following a coup in 1980, Ozal dominated Turkish politics during his period as prime minister from 1983-89, when he was elected president by parliament.
Viewed as a visionary who helped pave the way for modern Turkey with free-market economic policies, Ozal also gave firm support for the West, supporting the US-led coalition which expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
Birol Baskan, an assistant professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told Al Jazeera the reforms instituted by Ozal “were enough to change the whole social, political and economic structure in Turkey”.
“The changes Ozal’s reforms unleashed brought Turkey to this point. Retrospectively speaking, Ozal is the most influential person in modern Turkish history after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [founder of modern Turkey],” he said.
While prime minister, Ozal survived an assassination attempt by a right-wing gunman in 1988 when he was shot at a party congress, suffering a wounded finger.
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In 2010, Korkut Ozal said his brother’s 1993 death was the work of a nationalist underground network with senior military links known as “Ergenekon”.
Extrajudicial killings were common at that time and have been blamed on “shadowy forces” with ties to the state.
Those suspicious about his death have pointed to efforts which Ozal made to end the conflict with Kurdish fighters during his time in office, including securing a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) ceasefire shortly before his death.
Turkish political history has been littered with military coups, alleged anti-government plots and extrajudicial killings.
The Turkish army, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular principles, overthrew three governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980 – and has a history of tension with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
A Turkish court is currently trying hundreds of suspects accused of plotting to bomb mosques and trying to trigger a war with Greece in order to justify a military coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003.
Last month, a Turkish court sentenced three former army generals to 20 years in jail each for plotting a coup, convicting nearly 330 officers of involvement in the plot to overthrow the current government.
“There is a theory that there’s an informal state, what the Turks call ‘the deep state,’ within the formal state. Hierarchically organised, running in parallel to the formal state this ‘deep state’ sees itself beyond the law, even acts against the law if its self-righteous judgements deem it necessary to prepare the ground for the military takeover,” Baskan told Al Jazeera.
“As such, Ozal’s death prefigures a critical milestone in the preparation on the ground for the Turkish military’s intervention in politics in 1997, what the Turks call ‘post-modern coup d’état.’ If the investigations really show that he was killed, the theory of ‘the deep state’ will receive further empirical support.”
Additional reporting by Al Jazeera’s Ayse Alibeyoglu.