Celebrate, for now

IssueApril 2006
Feature by Andreas Speck

Good news for a change from Turkey: on 9 March, gay Turkish conscientious objector Mehmet Tarhan was unexpectedly released from the military prison in Sivas, following an order by the Military Court of Appeal in Ankara. The reasons for his release remain unclear, but one possibility is that, even if finally sentenced, Mehmet Tarhan would be unlikely to serve more time in prison than he already has (he was arrested on 6 April 2005, and has spent almost a year in prison).

Mehmet Tarhan had been sentenced to four years' imprisonment by a military court in Sivas on 15 December 2005, and it appears that the Appeal Court had expected a final sentence to be lower (in general, only one third of a prison sentence is served in Turkey).

A “civil death”

The release of Mehmet Tarhan, however, has to be seen in a wider context - and then, unfortunately, the good news doesn't look quite so good any more. The following is a rough sketch of recent developments.

On 24 January 2006, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg finally ruled in the case of conscientious objector Osman Murat U”lke (long-time Peace News readers might remember his case from the mid-1990s): The court decided that “the numerous criminal prosecutions against the applicant, the cumulative effects of the criminal convictions which resulted from them and the constant alternation between prosecutions and terms of imprisonment, together with the possibility that he would be liable to prosecution for the rest of his life, had been disproportionate to the aim of ensuring that he did his military service. They were more calculated to repressing the applicant's intellectual personality, inspiring in him feelings of fear, anguish and vulnerability capable of humiliating and debasing him and breaking his resistance and will. The clandestine life amounting almost to `civil death' which the applicant had been compelled to adopt was incompatible with the punishment regime of a democratic society.”

This judgement provoked a debate within Turkey on the right to conscientious objection as never seen before. Most mainstream newspapers interpreted the judgement as suggesting Turkey is finally required to recognise the right to conscientious objection.

In March, a second judgement of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of members of the Izmir Savas Karsitlari Dernegi (Izmir War Resisters' Association), who had been fined for travelling abroad without asking for permission from the Ministry of the Interior.

Increase the pressure

These developments - together with the international campaign in support of Mehmet Tarhan - increased the pressure on the Turkish government, especially as Turkey is facing very tough negotiations with the European Commission on entering the European Union. The renewed attention for the issue of conscientious objection was not welcome, and the easiest way to reduce the pressure was to release the only conscientious objector in prison - Mehmet Tarhan.

However, Mehmet Tarhan's release does not mean an end to his suffering, or to his legal case. Tarhan was still ordered to report to his military unit after his release - an order which he ignored, and was expected to ignore. He is therefore now considered a deserter and could be re-arrested at any time, although this is at present thought to be unlikely. In effect he has joined Osman Murat U”lke in what the European Court for Human Rights called “a clandestine life amounting almost to `civil death'.” There are about 80 declared conscientious objectors in Turkey living a similar life.

Since the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, the ongoing harassment of Osman Murat Ulke's parents has also been increasing. While in the past this harassment existed mainly in the form of yearly or twice-yearly visits by the police to ask about the whereabouts of Osman (which are perfectly well known to the police), the family report an increase in unknown men wandering around the property of Osman's parents - a property which is in a remote area of a Turkish island.

New sanction for COs?

The Turkish government seems to be preparing new sanctions for conscientious objection. The New Anatolian reported on 15 March that “Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul said yesterday that his ministry is working on a bill that will stipulate sanctions for conscientious objectors. ... Asked whether the sanction would mean a judicial sentence, he replied that it may involve paying a fine as an alternative.” In doing so, the Turkish government picks out another part of the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, namely that “there was no specific provision in Turkish law governing penalties for those who refused to wear uniform on conscientious or religious grounds”.

While the release of Mehmet Tarhan is a reason to celebrate, there is no reason to reduce our efforts in support of Turkish conscientious objectors.