ANKARA : A former Turkish army chief denied Thursday that the military overthrow of the country’s first Islamist prime minister in 1997 was tantamount to a coup. General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, who has been charged with 102 others, appeared in court in Ankara for the first time since the start of the trial in September over what has been dubbed Turkey’s “post-modern coup”.

Karadayi, 81, who failed to appear before because of ill health, denied that the army’s actions against the government of prime minister Necmettin Erbakan were tantamount to a coup. “I want to be acquitted. I did not do anything that can be likened to a coup,” said Karadayi, who was army chief from 1994 to 1998.

The army, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular principles, has carried out three coups — in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

But since coming to power in 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has reined in the once-powerful military with a series of court cases.

Dozens of active and retired officers have been convicted since 2008 over alleged plots against the government. Karadayi said those who used religion as a “tool” were responsible for the tensions simmering across the country at the time of the 1997 action because they acted against the secular principles of the Turkish republic.

“Our main objective had always been that armed forces should stay out of politics,” he added.  The army brought down the government of Erdogan’s mentor Erbakan in February 1997 without violence and did not install a military administration to replace the civilian cabinet.  Prosecutors in September called for a life sentence for Karadayi.