Adnan Menderes is the only Turkish prime minister to have been hanged by the generals. Others have been arrested (Süleyman Demirel in 1980), forced out of office (Necmettin Erbakan in 1997) or politely warned about a possible intervention (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2007). Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected premier, governed from 1950 until the military coup ten years later. He was executed on 17 September 1961.
His ghost continues to haunt Turkish democracy. Erdoğan is regularly warned not to ‘end up like Menderes’. When Mohamed Morsi was toppled last month, there were comments about ‘Egypt’s 1960 moment’ in the Turkish twittersphere. After the coup in May 1960, Menderes was taken to Yassıada, an island in the Sea of Marmara. Yassıada (‘Flat Island’) and its more mountainous neighbour Sivriada (‘Sharp Island’), known together as the Hayırsız Adalar (‘Wicked Islands’), are two of the nine Prens Adaları (‘Prince Islands’) off the coast of Istanbul. At only five hectares, Yassıada is among the smallest of them, and most remote. The Byzantines sent their troublemakers there; the Ottomans continued the tradition; in the 19th century it was discovered by the British.
Henry Bulwer, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1858 to 1865, bought Yassıada and built himself a mansion on it. He later sold up to Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt and Sudan, after advertising the island in the Times. In 1923 it became the property of the Turkish Republic, and the navy turned it into a ‘training facility’ in 1947. Menderes and his ministers were imprisoned there and tried by a military tribunal. They were executed on İmralı, another island in the Sea of Marmara.
Journalists have compared Yassıada to Robben Island. Some years ago the liberal Turkish NGO Young Civilians proposed building a ‘museum of democracy’ on it. But Erdoğan has other, more ambitious plans: a ‘Democracy Lighthouse’, an ‘Eternity Quay’, a hotel, four cafés, bungalows, a library, a conference hall, restaurants, a jetty. Yassıada will then be renamed the ‘Island of Democracy’.
The plans didn’t go down well with environmentalists, who staged a protest on the island last weekend. They have also upset Menderes’s relatives. His daughter-in-law said her family would be offended if Yassıada was opened for tourism. Another relative said a more appropriate name for Yassıada would be the ‘Island of Sadness’.