Turkey struggles with a culture of impunity regarding human rights abuses

The AKP has co-opted the Turkish Armed Forces to the point where it can only be questioned if it suits the government, but the opposition cannot even tolerate free speech about the TSK

"I had never heard the name of the PKK previously, I only learned about it after I was arrested. Until then, we knew that group by the name of 'Apoists.' In that sense, I had never been involved in politics.

Most of my teeth were loose.

Why, you ask?

Because as punishment I was regularly beaten with a plank. They would say open your mouth, bring the plank, hold it with both hands and hit you under the chin. Once you had the thick slab in your jaw, you would bite your tongue if you were inexperienced. If you were experienced, you didn't bite your tongue, but your teeth crushed into each other.

One day they made me eat a handful of shit, too, and I was able to finally get rid of my loose teeth.

I had to stand on one leg, against the wall. As punishment! But after a while I got tired, my foot came down and I couldn't hold it anymore.



They lifted the lid of the sewer at the foot of the wall, I took a handful of shit and put it in my mouth. Then I just stood at attention with the shit in my mouth there.

No moving.

No cleaning up.

No spitting on the floor.

You just stand there with your mouth closed, not making a move, standing at attention.

After a while he let me go and I could go back inside.

There was a friend from Elazig, his name was Ramazan. God bless him, he pulled some of my teeth with a string. Because I was unable to clean my teeth... He put one of the two gold-plated teeth in his pocket and gave me one as a souvenir. The first thing I did after I was released from prison was to go to the dentist and have dentures put in.

I spent eight months in Ward 33 of the Type E Military Prison in Diyarbakir.

I was 55 years old... No one could recognize me when I came out."

Felat Cemiloglu, who was taken into custody on May 21, 1982, and who only found out after his arrest about the existence of an organization called PKK, which had not yet gone into any action, was released after eight months in prison without even being brought to court, and he did not tell about the torture he had been subjected to in the prison operated by the putschist soldiers to anyone until he told Hasan Cemal about it 20 years later, in 2002 (Kürtler, 2003, Doğan Kitap).

Had Cemiloglu told a journalist about the torture he was subjected to immediately after his release from prison, the putschists would probably have reacted by saying to him, "How dare you slander the hearth of the Prophet, the Turkish Armed Forces," and he would have been thrown into prison along with that journalist and subjected to even more horrific torture and might not even have survived.

In fact, Cemiloglu had also told Hasan Cemal the following: "If I had been young when I got out of prison, I would have taken to the hills lest I be unjustly put through the hell of investigation, arrest, and Prison No. 5 all over again."

In a twist of fate, years later, on December 16, 2012, then Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc drew attention to the tortures suffered by then BDP Co-Chair Gultan Kisanak, who was imprisoned in Diyarbakır Prison during the September 12 coup, and declared, "I would have taken to the mountains." Kisanak, who was subjected to horrific tortures in the same Diyarbakir Prison when she was only 17 years old, did not go to the mountains after her release from prison, but she is still in prison today, as she was during the September 12 coup.

Many people, including AKP members, acknowledge that it was the persecution by the then Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), especially in Diyarbakir Prison, that contributed to the growth of the PKK. The claim that "without the PKK, none of this would have happened" has nothing to do with the truth. When you go down that road, if there were no Kurds, there would be no Kurdish problem at all!

However, a different possibility also existed: If a different political approach had been taken by the state since the 1920s instead of the anti-Kurdish policy, there would still be Kurds, but there would not be a Kurdish problem.

Diyarbakır Prison, where thousands of Kurds such as Kisanak and Cemiloglu were tortured, where 34 people were murdered and dozens of others were maimed between 1981 and 1984 alone, was closed on Oct. 23, 2022, in the presence of Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as part of the AKP's election campaign, and handed over to the Tourism Ministry to be included in the travel advisory for conservative middle-class tourists that the government has been systematically directing to Diyarbakir since 2016.

Incidentally, it should be recalled that the AKP had already promised to close Diyarbakir Prison as early as 2009 (probably on account of the Oslo talks), but this promise was not kept until 13 years later for political reasons.

On the other hand, just a week after Minister Bozdag said in Diyarbakir, "We are honored and proud to close the door of another place that has been the center of bad memories and rights violations in the past," on October 28, 2022, the president of the Turkish Medical Association, Prof. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, a doctor and human rights defender, was targeted online for days and subsequently arrested for stating that allegations of the use of chemical weapons by the Turkish Armed Forces during their operations against the PKK, as well as images that had appeared on social media, should be investigated.

In fact, we already witnessed similar claims and how the government responds to them 16 years ago.

On March 28, 2006, days of demonstrations erupted in Diyarbakir, the city where Bozdag had closed the prison made famous by torture by Turkish forces in the 1980s. Allegations of "chemical weapons" use were also in the background of these events. Relatives of the dead had revealed that among the 14 PKK fighters killed by Turkish forces in Mus province on March 24, 2006, were some whose bodies were so burned that they could not be identified. Although it would have been easy to determine from autopsy reports whether these deaths were caused by chemical weapons, the government not only denied the allegations but also launched an investigation against the then Democratic Society Party for making these allegations.

However, March 28 saw protests in many provinces and districts, including Diyarbakir, Batman, Siirt, Mardin, Urfa and Sirnak. Then-Prime Minister Erdogan declared that "Anything necessary will be done against anyone who has become a tool of terrorism, even if they are children and women." A crackdown on the protests ensued, during which 13 civilians were killed, seven of them children, including 8-year-old Enes Ata and 8-year-old Ismail Erkek. Among those killed was also 78-year-old Halit Sogut. (Click here for IHD's report on the March events.)

Immediately thereafter, in June 2006, the government expanded the anti-terror law, and by the end of 2006 the problem of "stone-throwing children" was on the agenda. Countless Kurdish children were subjected to on-camera beatings, detentions and arrests for allegedly throwing stones at the police, and this practice continued for years.

Besides, in the decision to close the Democratic Society Party in 2009, the party's "crimes" were justified by, among other things, "chemical weapons allegations" made in 2006.

In other words, neither the state's "sensitivity" on this issue nor its reaction to the call to investigate the allegations is new.

However, in the case of Ms. Fincanci, all that is in question is a simple request for the allegations to be investigated and the images to be examined. In other words, Ms. Fincanci is not claiming that the Turkish Armed Forces used chemical weapons. She says that she has seen some videos posted on social media and that independent committees should investigate this issue. Therefore, what is at issue for Fincanci is simply exercising her freedom to express her opinion as an expert.

However, opposition parties, with the exception of the HDP, have remained silent in the face of the targeting of Ms. Fincanci. Similar to Fincanci, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a CHP deputy and human rights advocate who also stated that these allegations should be investigated, became a target even among his own party's leadership and deputies.

Tanrikulu, against whom a criminal proceeding is currently being prepared as of today, also does not claim that chemical weapons were used. All he said was that he will submit a parliamentary question to investigate whether the allegations are true or not. Incidentally, the Ministry of Defense had already issued a statement denying the allegations before this question was submitted. Nevertheless, Mr. Tanrikulu continued to be targeted by both the government and his own party.

For example, Gursel Erol of the CHP made the following comments: "The actions of the Turkish Armed Forces should not be questioned or criticized, and I find this criticism irresponsible. I never think it is right for those who do not know where the roots of the CHP lie to make such statements, and our friend who made this statement will be confronted in the Central Executive Committee. What does he care about these stupid allegations and slander, especially on the way to the elections? Was it up to him to make such a statement? The party should take a very tough stance on this matter. A deputy should never make a statement or ask a parliamentary question on state institutions by exceeding his authority and overstepping his responsibility and office."

While Erol makes these remarks not against any politician, but against a human rights advocate and a member of parliament from his own party, he himself considers a parliamentary question, which is part of the normal duties of a member of parliament, as "overstepping his office" and rushes ahead of the government in defense of the army.

However, if Mr. Erol had showed up on the attempted coup night of July 15 (2016) and said, "The activities of the TSK cannot be questioned," he would be in prison today; if he had said this around the military memorandum of February 28 (1997), he would have been blacklisted by the AKP; if he had said it around September 12 (1980), he would have been labeled a stooge to Kenan Evren; if he had said it during the Ergenekon-Balyoz investigations, he would have been considered a coup plotter by the then AKP-Gulenist alliance.

As for Erol, the massacre in Roboski, which was perpetrated by F-16 aircraft of the Turkish Armed Forces on December 28, 2011, after a National Security Council (MGK) meeting, cannot be questioned or criticized. In light of his statement, one would expect Erol to say the leader of his party Kilicdaroglu, who visited Roboski in August and promised justice to the families, "What's it to you, brother?"

On the other hand, Mr. Erol is not in the wrong; it cannot even be suggested to investigate the actions of the army, let alone question or criticize them, and Fincanci's imprisonment is concrete proof of that.

On November 6, for example, more than a hundred people were arrested during demonstrations in many parts of the country, including Istanbul, calling for an independent committee to investigate the chemical weapons allegations, with HDP MP Musa Piroglu encircled by police shields and taken into de facto custody.

The 1990s was another period when the activities of Turkish forces were not questioned, as thousands of villages were burned, the white Taurus-brand--supposedly undercover--police cars paraded through the streets, and acid pits were filled with human corpses.

It is also a matter of fact that the activities of the Turkish Armed Forces in the 1990s were questioned by the AKP governments only during the resolution process, that lawsuits were brought against the commanders of the time, and that these lawsuits were eventually terminated with impunity after the end of the resolution process.

The truth is that when Turkey was ruled by a putschist regime, the activities of the Turkish Armed Forces could not be called into question.

However, we are well aware of the fact that the AKP has established its current regime of domination precisely by questioning the actions of the TSK in "non-putsch" times and by carrying out radical purges within the military. As a matter of fact, long before the attempted coup by the Gulenist cadres within the TSK, the AKP's sharp questioning of the army's actions with respect to the tensions between the government and the army, which were so deep that the TSK tried to prevent Erdogan's presidency with an e-memorandum, led the AKP to take over the TSK's influence on politics, and today we can safely say that the AKP no longer allows this institution to be questioned because it has eventually “become the TSK” in a sense.

In other words, for the AKP, the activities of the TSK can either be questioned or not, depending on its current political interests. The opposition, on the other hand, cannot even stand up for freedom of expression, let alone question an institution.

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