International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


The Turkish State and Democracy 1
By Hugh Poulton


The Turkish republic was set up in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and the defeat by nationalist forces led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) of the Greek armies in the Greco-Turkish war of 1920-22.

The citizens of the new state, which roughly equated to the militarily defensible Anatolian heartland, were seen to be essentially the Muslim population of Anatolia. However, this population was itself divided in religious belief between Sunnis, those with Shi’ite tendencies (the Alevis), and a small secularised elite, as well as between those who spoke differing mother tongues: Turkish, Kurdish, Laz or other languages. There were also deep cleavages between the small urban elites and the traditional villagers, as well as between nomads and settled populations, and, especially in the east and southeast, tribal and non-tribal structures. It appears that Kemal initially saw the national movement as embracing Turks and Kurds (separately identified 2 ) and even went as far as to promise the Kurds autonomy in areas where they constituted substantial populations. 3 Kemal quickly introduced a number of sweeping reforms with the expressed aim of modernising the new state. These reforms included a new alphabet and change of script from Arabic to Latin, language reform, an attempt to relegate Islam to the private sphere and remove it as a potential political force — this despite Kemal’s use of it in this manner in the resistance war as a rallying cry against the “Christian” invaders — and the closing of all the tarikat (mystic religious orders). There were even laws regulating dress with the banning of certain headgear — usually Islamic in character — which were seen as symbols of reaction. Islam was clearly seen as a reactionary force and an obstacle to modernisation. Although the state progressively viewed itself as a secular one 4 there was never any real separation of state and religion. On the contrary, the Kemalist state continued and amplified the late Ottoman practice of incorporating the official urban ulema into the central state authority.

Thus, the Kemalist state was a strongly centralised unitary state in which the only officially recognised minorities were small religious ones as per the Lausanne Treaty. 5 All concepts of ethnic groups other than “Turks” were taboo. Assimilation was deliberately used to overcome ethnic differences. In this, Turkey can be seen as following perceived “modern” norms of the time, 6 and despite penalties and other pressures brought against those expressing other identities, there was no “ethnic” bar to Kurds and others rising to top posts in the bureaucracy as long as they abandoned their own culture and adopted the state approved Turkish model. This model remains essentially unchanged to the present day. This unitary nation-state model, which often includes a strong army to protect national boundaries, has recently gone out of fashion. The new concepts refer to the late or high-modern state where there is: greater emphasis on cultural diversity and multi-culturalism, regionalism (Catalonia, Wales, etc); greater international freedom of movement; a multi-national economy operating on a global scale; the communications revolution which has seen the ending of the old “modern” state’s monopoly on media (and education); the beginnings of a “global” morality based on liberal free-market capitalism and human rights; and the progress towards trans-national units like the European Union (i.e. the end of the nation state). In this climate, minorities are seen as potentially a good thing, and instead of “benign neglect” (which can often lead to assimilation over usually two to three generations, as without help the minority culture is clearly at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the dominant culture) the new thinking (since the end of the 1980s) is one in which the state should actively support minority cultures. This is expressed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic of Minorities of 1992, and more recently by the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the rights of minorities.


Turkey post-1950 as a multi-party polity

When the one-party system was dismantled in the late 1940s and 1950s and democratic practices began to take root, the continuing Islamic sensibilities of the large majority of the population began to make themselves evident. To win elections, politicians needed to take this into account. The classic Kemalist elite attitude of ignoring religious sensibilities and dictating cultural norms to the masses became increasingly untenable, and it is noticeable that since 1950, the secular CHP — the main political party claiming to represent Kemalist secularist norms — and its successors have never won an outright majority of the electorate. At the same time, mass migration from the countryside to the urban centres began to change traditional attitudes for the first time. This process had two contradictory sides: on the one hand, the mass of the population began truly to be subjected to the centre’s nationalist ideology. On the other, the centre itself had to take into account the (Sunni) Islamic wishes of the majority. These wishes included state support for mosque construction as well as for religious education in schools. However, overt politicisation of Islam remained taboo and parties seen as too radically Islamic were banned and dissolved. 7 Thus, the parameters were set. Islam could be used to bolster electoral support but it had to be subordinated to Kemalist republicanism.


The role and function of the Turkish army in political life

Since Ottoman times the army has seen itself as a progressive force. Despite Kemal’s partial withdrawal of the military from politics, it continued — and continues to this day— to see itself as the ultimate guarantor of Kemalist norms and ideology. The army remains among the most trusted institutions in Turkey with some 80 percent of the population consistently viewing it as such in public opinion polls. In the single party period, the close association of the army with Kemalist norms proved unproblematic. However, the multi-party period and the subsequent failure of the CHP to win a majority of votes in elections was different. The military has repeatedly intervened directly in the political process whenever it feels that political forces are seriously challenging what it considers to be Kemal’s legacy or whenever it considers that politicians are not properly representing the nations’ interests, as viewed by the army high command. This happened in 1960 with the coup against Adnan Menderes and the subsequent 17 months of military rule, which saw the drafting of the 1961 Constitution. It happened again in 1971 with the 12 March “coup-by-memorandum” which ousted Süleyman Demirel from power and ushered in close military control until 1973. In addition to these periods of overt military control, there were other radical forces within the military 8 who wanted the army to take an even more active role.


The 1980 military coup and its aftermath: the role of the National Security Council

The 1970s were a decade of great political turbulence in Turkey with anti-systemic armed groups from both ends of the political spectrum fighting each other on the streets. The situation was exacerbated by a succession of seemingly powerless weak coalition governments. The violence dramatically escalated throughout the decade. On 12 September 1980, the military authorities stepped in to end the anarchy — apparently with a large degree of public support. The ensuing military regime of 1980-83 closed down all political parties and banned their leaders from political life. Large numbers of activists, especially those seen as left-wing, were imprisoned and many tortured. Unlike previous army interventions in 1960 and 1971, when military control was of limited duration, this time the military seemed determined to remain in power long enough to cement changes in attitudes and avert a repetition of the anarchy of the late 1970s. The regime oversaw the drafting and implementation of the 1982 Constitution, which remains in force today.

Despite the army seeing itself as the bastion of Kemalism, it appears that the military rulers concluded that a lack of religious instruction in Turkey’s youth had resulted in a proliferation of anti-systemic ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism and fascism. Correspondingly, Article 24 of the Constitution stated that; “Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools.” However, this state-propagated religion was not seen as a recipe for rampant Islamism, and the same article underlined that such practice could not violate the secular nature of the state. The new emphasis on Sunni Islam as social cement was clearly seen by the military as subordinated to Kemalist republican norms. This policy was widely known as the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” which aimed to merge Turkishness with moderate Sunni Islam.

This period saw the National Security Council (MGK) come to the fore. This body was established under Article 111 of the 1962 Constitution “to assist the Council of Ministers in reaching decisions related to national security and coordination”. It comprises the chiefs of general military staff as well as the president and prime minister. Its powers were greatly enhanced in 1962 to provide “preparatory and advisory assistance” to the government to assure “coordination between organisations working in the fields of internal and external security”. Henceforth, the MGK was able to interfere directly in the political process under the guise of protecting “national security”, as defined by itself. After the coup, the civilian members of the MGK were purged and it became, in effect, the government. The 1982 Constitution set up a Presidential Council composed of the ruling MGK, with powers to examine laws passed by parliament and to advise the president (at that time, coup leader General Evren). This body was abolished in November 1989 as per the timetable laid down in the Constitution. The MGK, however, has remained with its powers intact. Another facet of the new Constitution was that the Chiefs of General Staff remained answerable to the president not the minister of defence. Thus, policies concerning defence and matters of internal security were effectively removed from governmental control.


The return to democracy within restrictions on freedom of expression

In 1983, despite the military’s stated preference to the contrary, the electorate voted in Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (Anap) as ruling party. Özal, partly of Kurdish extraction and a devout Sunni Muslim — he had personal affiliation to the Naksibendi Sufi sect — ushered in a number of far-reaching reforms including the opening up of the Turkish economy through privatisation. Although many giant state enterprises remained, the privatisation was especially noticeable in the cultural field with the state’s monopoly on broadcast and printed media broken. As a result, a plethora of Islamic publications and cassettes became available. The new climate allowed the Islamic Welfare Party (Refah) of Necmettin Erbakan — the successor to the banned National Salvation Party of the 1970s — to widen its appeal and become a mass party apparently operating just within the constitutional limits regarding overt Islamism. At the same time, the Ministry of Religious Affairs responsible for overseeing Sunni Islam greatly expanded. Mosque construction carried on apace with an average of some 1,500 built each year by the end of the 1980s. Many extra-curricula Koran schools were opened. The state continued to exert its central control over Islam by, among other methods, issuing central instructions for the content of hocas, weekly sermons.

Özal also oversaw the relaxation on the restrictions on the private use of Kurdish which occurred at the end of the 1980s. Law 2932 of 1983, which in conjunction with Article 26 of the Constitution had penalised the use of Kurdish, was finally abolished in April 1991, along with Articles 142, 143 and 163 of the Turkish Penal Code penalising Marxist and Islamic political activity. However, the Law to Fight Terrorism of April 1991 once more penalised freedom of expression (see below). In mid-1992 the ban on pre-1980 coup political parties and their leaders was lifted after a referendum, and leading politicians like former prime ministers Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit, as well as Erbakan, returned to open political activity. 9 However, the political system remained to a large degree open to influence and control by the military through the National Security Council.


The Kurdish issue and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)

As noted above, Kemalism viewed Turkey as a centralised unitary state and was very antithetical towards all concepts of minorities within the country with the exception of religious ones recognised by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. This policy has remained a constant. Since the advent of multi-party politics in 1950, any party which openly campaigns for Kurdish causes has faced closure, often with its leaders being prosecuted. In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an extreme left-wing group set up by Abdullah Öcalain in 1978, began armed attacks on Turkish security forces mainly in the southeast of the country. Since then the conflict has dramatically escalated and has claimed some 30,000 lives. 10 The guerilla warfare and the government’s reactions, including the arming of villagers (village guard system) and the introduction of a “state of emergency”, have added further elements to the Kurdish problem. 11


Restrictions on the expression of Kurdishness

While there has been slow improvement since the end of the 1980s and the lifting in 1991 of the ban on all use of the Kurdish language, restrictions remain especially in the field of broadcasting. Currently Kurdish publications are legal (although most are repeatedly subject to sanctions for political reasons) as are broadcasts of Kurdish music, but spoken Kurdish remains taboo on the airwaves. The Turkish authorities have repeatedly attempted to end satellite broadcasts by MED-TV, set up in March 1995 with its headquarters in Brussels and broadcasting from London under license of the UK’s Independent Television Commission (ITC). Although MED-TV broadcasts in Turkish and other languages besides Kurdish, it is essentially a Kurdish programme and currently plays a crucial role in propagating Kurdish culture and consciousness both within Turkey and other neighbouring Kurdish areas and in the Diaspora. The Turkish authorities view MED-TV as supportive of the PKK and have repeatedly protested to the ITC and to the British government about the station. In 1996, a number of countries refused to renew the MED-TV contract apparently due to Turkish pressure, and in September there were simultaneous raids on its offices in London and Brussels. In January 1998, MED-TV was fined for breaching ITC programme codes for three programmes shown in 1997. The Turkish authorities periodically engage in illegal jamming of its signals. Within Turkey, cultural associations created to promote Kurdish language and culture are legal but in practice face official censure and pressure. The main such organisation, the Mesopotamian Cultural Centre (MKM) has branches throughout the country, but the second half of 1997 witnessed police pressure on MKM branches in Adana, Mersin, Sanli Urfa and Diyarbakir. This highlights the problem that although Kurdish plays and music performances are not illegal per se, the authorities tend to view such actions as suspect, and performers are at times prosecuted for the content of songs which are construed to promote Kurdish separatism.


Political Islam in relation to state and society

As noted above, Kemal attempted to remove Islam from the political agenda. However, the advent of multi-party politics saw it return once more, albeit within closely controlled limits. Turkey’s population remains overwhelmingly Sunni Islamic. As such, many mainstream political parties have attempted to tap into the religious sensibilities of the population to achieve electoral support. In addition there have been a number of attempts to set up overtly Islamic political parties. These have repeatedly run foul of successive constitutional and penal sanctions forbidding such parties. Despite these sanctions, the Islamic political movement has continued in a number of different guises and names, garnering support from the discontented and uprooted villagers who moved to the squatter settlements of the big cities. Under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan — himself a member of the technocratic elite — it took part in weak governmental coalitions in the 1970s. Despite this participation in government, it remained electorally weak until the 1980s. This period saw the ushering in under Özal of greater opportunities for public expression and the ending of the state’s monopoly on the means of expression. At the same time, a new generation of university-educated Islamic intellectuals appeared who were adept at taking advantage of the new situation. They were also adept at arguing their views in opposition to the old secular Kemalist elites. As a result, the Islamic Welfare Party (Refah) managed to break out of its seemingly electoral prison and become a truly mass party challenging the main political groupings. It even succeeded in capturing the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul, and in December 1995 becoming the largest political party in Turkey with some 21 percent of the national vote allowing Erbakan to become prime minister in a coalition government with the True Path Party (DYP).

This growth in Islamic political influence made the old secular elites experience something akin to panic. This was compounded by the appearance of radical Islamic groups willing to murder those they saw as enemies of their vision of society. The old elites were long used to dictating their vision of Turkish identity and culture unopposed. Now they were faced with an adversary which they thought modernisation would sweep away, but which, on the contrary, was both growing and adept at using the new technological opportunities afforded by this modernisation. 12 The Refah also showed itself adept at grassroots organisation and support for its members — this in marked contrast to some other mass parties whose local administrations became by-words for corruption and venality.

The struggle can also be seen as an economic one between the old elites based in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, and the new ones coming out of the conservative Anatolian heartland where a number of cities are becoming prosperous centres. These new elites are Refah supporters and are challenging the old economic elites who are virtually part of the state. Turkey remains a polity where state patronage is a key factor in economic life. The Özal era of the late 1980s saw a rise of new economic elites in the western centres ready to compete with the old Kemalist ones who tended to be centred on the bureaucracy. However, the new Özal elites were still linked to the all-powerful state, with many companies on the Istanbul stock exchange being state companies (that is, public companies ruled by bureaucrats). Turkey today is characterised by the huge gap between the new “haves” and the mass of impoverished “have-nots” in squatter settlements, many of whom turned to Refah both as a means of support as well as protest. Thus there is a competition under way which is dressed up in Islamic clothes but is really about money and power, with the Refah being the political representative of new rising societal forces. Either way, the MGK forced Erbakan out of office in June 1997 and the Refah was banned by the Constitutional Court in January 1998. Just prior to the banning, the Constitutional Court scrapped Article 103 of the Political Parties Law which stipulated that a party should be warned of unconstitutionality before banning. Furthermore, Erbakan and other Refah leaders were banned from political life for five years and criminal prosecutions begun against some for speeches they had made.


Restrictions on political activity

Political parties which openly espouse politicised Islam like the Refah, the Kurdish issue or radical left-wing views face censure for being unconstitutional and a number of such parties have been banned. In the last 15 years or so there have been a number of attempts to set up legal Kurdish parties to run for election in parliament. The state has constantly accused these parties of links with the PKK. Such charges are hard to assess, especially as little hard evidence is produced. In 1994, 13 deputies whose parliamentary immunity had been lifted were charged with treason. Six fled to Belgium and the rest were sentenced to up to 15 years’ imprisonment in December of that year. Four of them remained detained. Another DEP deputy, Mehemt Sincar, was shot dead on 6 September 1994 in circumstances implicating the security forces. Even attempts like that of the former Minister of Public Works, Serafettin Elçi, a Kurd by origin, to set up a pro-Kurdish party clearly without any links to the PKK have been thwarted and his Democratic Mass Party (DKP) prosecuted in June 1997 under Article 81 of the Political Parties Law concerning “preventing the creation of minorities”.

The current main Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic Party (HADEP), founded on 11 May 1994 which, while still legal, has been subjected to a variety of pressures including the prosecution of its leaders on a number of charges and the closure of some of its branches in the southeast. Left-wing parties which espouse any form of communism, even if non-violently, have been banned. All these bans appear to be flagrant breaches of the European Convention to which Turkey is a party. The Refah has stated that it will appeal to the European Commission and Court against its closure. In January 1998, the European Court unanimously found a violation of the Convention regarding the dissolution of the United Communist Party of Turkey (TBKP) by the Turkish Constitutional Court in July 1991 because it called for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. 13 Again in May 1998, the Court ruled unanimously that Turkey had violated Article 11 of the Convention by closing the Socialist Party in 1988 for once again calling for a non-violent solution to the Kurdish question. 14


Civil society

Civil society is a key feature of modern pluralist democracies. It relates to sectors of society outside of control of the state. While it is usually used in the singular, in modern states it is not and should not be monolithic — on the contrary, it is a milieu in which different groups with varying opinions can both express their views as well as exert influence on the ideology and practice of the state. In this, civil society is a key counterbalance to the state centre in the liberal political system. As noted, the modern state appears to be evolving into one where diversity expressed through non-violent methods is seen more as a positive factor and less as a negative one.

The Turkish state has, as noted above, attempted to retain key features of the early Kemalist period, notably a centralised unitary ideology concerning nation and state, and a distrust of all forms of activity, whether they be primarily ethnic or religious — which it perceives as a threat to this. The military especially is inimical to all forms of expression other than the official Kemalist line. As such, the Turkish polity is inimical to civil society per se. Despite this hostility, civil society is beginning to grow in Turkey, especially in the main cities like Istanbul. One of the most dynamic sections of this growing civil society is the business world where a new breed of entrepreneur capitalist has emerged since the Özal period. Despite the traditionally close association between state and business, this new breed of businessmen displays far greater independence from and criticism of the traditional shibboleths of the Turkish state. Other manifestations of this growth in Turkish civil society are the actions of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Another manifestation is the civil disobedience campaign undertaken by writers and intellectuals to support freedom of expression in Turkey. This began in earnest in reaction to the trial which began on 23 January 1995 of Yasar Kemal — perhaps Turkey’s most famous writer — by the Istanbul State Security Court (DGM) for an article published in Der Spiegel magazine in Germany. Within a short time a petition on his behalf signed by 1,080 Turkish intellectuals had been collected; the signatories also co-published a volume entitled Düsünceye Özgürlük (“Freedom of Expression”) and voluntarily presented themselves to the DGM prosecutor to similar charges as Kemal. Such actions have been repeated at regular intervals in an attempt to highlight the current legal restrictions on non-violent freedom of expression. On 15 March 1998, a two-day march by NGOs and actors in support of freedom of expression in Turkey began in selected places between Istanbul and Ankara. In February and early March 1997, a mass popular movement called “a minute of darkness” spread across the country as citizens turned off their household lights in protest at the allegations of complicity and corruption in high places revealed by the Susurluk affair (see below). Lawyer Esber Yagmurdereli organised a campaign to collect one million signatures to highlight the Kurdish conflict and handed the petition to the speaker of parliament in mid-1977. 15


The 1982 Constitution and the legal framework

As noted, the Constitution was introduced by the military after the 1980 coup. It contained many articles which severely restricted democratic political activity. In July 1995, 16 amendments were ratified by the National Assembly which removed both the references in the preamble praising the military intervention of 12 September 1980 as well as many of these undemocratic articles. For example, henceforth trade unions, cooperatives, associations, foundations and vocational institutions were allowed to participate directly in the political process and university teachers and students were now able to join political parties.

However, these changes only effectively related to previous restrictions on political activity by specific groups, and some basic principles which clearly infringe the right to non-violent freedom of expression remain, as well as others which have been used as the basis for repressing free expression. The Constitution includes unalterable basic principles enumerated in Articles 2 and 3, which state that Turkey is a “secular state” and that its “territory and nation is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish.” These principles have been used to close down political parties for being “unconstitutional” because they were allegedly either anti-secular or espoused a Kurdish national consciousness, regardless of whether violence was used or advocated. Furthermore, Article 13 allows for the restriction by law of fundamental rights and freedoms in order to “safeguard the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation . . .”, while Article 14 states that none of the constitutional rights and freedoms may be “exercised with the aim of violating the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation”. This article forbids any action aimed at “establishing the hegemony of one social class over others, or creating discrimination on the basis of language, race, religion or sect, or of establishing by any other means a system of government based on these concepts and ideas”. Article 24 dealing with “Freedom of Religion and Conscience” forbids the exploitation of religion “in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence, or for even partially basing the fundamental, societal, economic, political, and legal order of the State”.


Penal sanctions

In addition to the constitutional limits, there are a large number of legal measures which severely curtail freedom of expression and political activity in Turkey. Currently, the main legal instruments used in freedom of expression cases are: Article 158 and 159 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) which penalise any “insult” to the president or “the Turkish nation, the Republic, the Grand National Assembly, or the moral responsibility of the Government or the military or security forces of the State or the moral responsibility of the judicial authorities”; the Law to Protect Atatürk of 1951 which carries sentences of between one and three years’ imprisonment for anyone “who reviles or openly insults the memory of Atatürk”, and up to five years for destroying or defacing any of the huge number of his statues, busts or monuments; Article 312 of the TCK which carries sentences of six months to two years for anybody who “openly praises or incites others to disobey the law”, and sentences of between one and three years for anybody who “incites hatred based on, class, race religion, or religious sect, or incites hatred between different regions” (this article has been widely used against left-wingers, Islamists and those raising the Kurdish issue); and above all the Law to Fight Terrorism of 1991.

This law, introduced in 1991, has been used against thousands of people usually accused of aiding or being members of the PKK or extreme left-wing groups. In the first 10 months of 1996 alone, 1,024 people were in custody and a further 1,943 people charged but not in custody relating to offences under this law. 16 It has been and continues to be widely used to suppress freedom of expression in Turkey. It defines terrorism so broadly and vaguely that almost anyone can be convicted of an offense under it. Article 6 includes writing and reporting ideas as methods of “pressure” proscribed under Article 1 if the government deems them to threaten the state on a number of grounds, including damaging the “indivisible unity of the State” or endangering “the existence of the Turkish State and Republic”. Article 8, amended in October 1995, still prohibits written and oral propaganda, assemblies, meetings and demonstrations “aimed at damaging the indivisible unity of the State . . . regardless of method, intention, and ideas behind them” and in which there is an element of incitement to violence.

The Press Law of 1950 empowers a public prosecutor, without securing a court order prior to actions, to stop distribution of a newspaper or magazine. The 1983 addition to the Press Law requires that there be “responsible editors” in each publication who bear legal responsibility including possible imprisonment, for the publication’s contents. Law No. 3984 regulating radio and television broadcasting allows the government body responsible for broadcasting, RTÜK set up in 1994, to fine and close radio and television stations for up to 30 days without court order. Under Decree with the Force of Law No. 430, the Minister of the Interior has the power to ban any publication from circulation in emergency regions (currently six provinces in the southeast) or to order the closure of its printing press for up to 30 days (irrespective of its location), provided a warning is first issued to the owner or publisher of the publication. All the above laws fall well below the internationally accepted standards and have been and continue to be used widely to curtail freedom of expression and political discussion in Turkey.


The State Security Courts

Most trials concerning freedom of expression in Turkey are heard by the State Security Courts (DGMs). These are constituted as per Article 143 of the Constitution “to deal with offenses against the indivisible integrity of the State and its territory and nation, offenses against the Republic which are contrary to the democratic order enunciated in the Constitution, and offenses which undermine the internal or external security of the State”. Thus the DGMs have jurisdiction over Articles 125, 172 and 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, and Articles 6 to 8 of the Law to Fight Terrorism, and thousands of cases have been brought before them. There are currently eight DGM precincts; Ankara; Istanbul; Izmir; Konya; Kayseri; Erzincan; Diyarbakir and Malatya, and 17 tribunals, five of which are in Istanbul. The DGMs comprise three members, one of whom is a military judge. Article 7(a) annexed to the Law on Military Judges makes eligibility for promotion, seniority in grade and salary increments of military judges serving in DGMs dependent on “the first hierarchical competent superior”. The presence of a military judge answerable to his military superiors in the judging of civilians has given rise to doubts of judicial independence, and the DGMs have been condemned by the European Court as not impartial. 17


Extrajudicial measures: torture, killings by “unknown” assailants and “disappearances”

Along with the above detailed battery of formal legal measures, those who raise taboo topics have also been subjected to a variety of extra-legal measures. These include arbitrary arrest, threats, physical violence and even murder.

Torture and other cruel inhuman and degrading treatment remains endemic in Turkey despite governmental promises to end the abuse and is routinely used against those arrested for political reasons. Those responsible are often not brought to justice, and if they are receive lenient sentences. In December 1996, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) issued a “Public Statement on Turkey”. This condemned the “flagrant examples of torture encountered by CPT delegates”. These included electric shocks, squeezing of the testicles, suspension by the limbs, the use of blindfolds and tripping prisoners naked. Such methods were often used during interrogation especially in connection with those held under the Law to Fight Terrorism. During a public debate in the Turkish parliament on 28 February 1996, a former Justice Minister, Firuz Çilingiroglu, admitted that torture was a widespread practice especially during periods of custody when detainees did not enjoy the necessary legal protection. However, those responsible for torture were increasingly being brought to trial and he quoted a figure of 252 prosecutions for such offenses in 1993 and 224 for 1994.

The High Council for Human Rights recommended various reforms to end such practices, notably a reduction to a four-day maximum period of custody (from 15 days under the Law to Fight Terrorism and 30 days in the State of Emergency Region) and giving detainees the possibility to consult a lawyer. 18 In March 1997, the Refahyol coalition government reduced the maximum period of detention for security detainees to seven days or 10 days in the State of Emergency Region. However, torture continues, with reports alleging torture of detainees occurring virtually on a daily basis, leading at times to the death of the victims.

The murder of people for their views began in earnest in 1990 with some 20 killings. For example on 6 October 1990, Bahriye Üçok, a retired professor of religion, was killed by a parcel bomb. Her death was claimed by an extremist Islamic group who acted because of her “opinion on the veil”. While such killings of prominent secularists in centres like Ankara and Istanbul continued, 1991 saw political killings of left-wing Kurds by radical Islamic organisations, especially the shadowy Hizbullah group (which has no connections with the Lebanese organisation with a similar name), become systematic in the southeast of the country, reaching a peak in 1993-94. There were 20 such killings in 1991, 362 in 1992, 467 in 1993, 423 in 1994, 166 in 1995, 78 in 1996 and 36 in 1997. Some of the victims appear to have been killed as a result of internecine feuding in Hizbullah. Those murdered included journalists and news vendors selling pro-Kurdish left-wing papers like Özgür Gündem. 19 As well as radical Islamic movements, extreme rightist groups and the PKK were responsible for some of these murders. There have also been a number of allegations of official complicity in these killings, allegations which have been confirmed in the wake of the Susurluk affair (see below).

The majority of these murders and associated “disappearances” took place over a period of some years in an area under emergency legislation akin to martial law and large numbers of them remained unsolved and were officially ascribed to “unknown assailants”.

Despite the state’s denial of knowledge of these crimes, both internal and external human rights organisations have, since the murders began in earnest, pointed to clear manifestations of official complicity on these murders and other attacks. It is noticeable that Hizbullah, which was set up in 1987 in Batman and is committed to establishing a Sunni Islamic state, only appeared as a prominent actor in the southeast after a purge of pro-Islamic police officers from Ankara in July 1991 and their transfer to the region. It appears that Hizbullah’s policy of assassination of perceived enemies appears to have been initially tolerated by the authorities, as the victims were seen as working against the unity of the Turkish state and thus as enemies. Indeed, the authorities refused to even use the name Hizbullah until 1994, and it was not until mid-1994 that Hizbullah members began to be arrested and charged with murder. 20 A parliamentary Commission of Investigation of Killings Whose Murderers Are Unknown was set up in February 1993 and completed its findings in a report of April 1995. The report implicated members of the security forces and village guards in some of the killings. This 1991 purge did not apparently affect the reputed ultra-nationalist domination of the country’s political police which became more evident with the Susurluk affair, which also made clear the involvement of the state in many of the murders.

On 3 November 1996 a car crash occurred in Susurluk in western Turkey. Three passengers were killed and one injured. The dead were Abdullah Çatli, a leading ultra-rightist militant wanted by Interpol and Turkish police for a number of crimes including political murders and narcotics smuggling, his girlfriend, and ex-police chief Hüseyin Kocadag. The injured man and owner of the car was Sedat Bucak, an Anap parliamentarian and Zaza Kurdish tribal leader who controls some 20,000 tribal members fighting in the village guard system against the PKK. In the car were also a number of firearms, 12 separate identity papers including an official Turkish passport (for use of state officials only) made out for Çatli, as well as a large amount of cash.

The accident showed a clear connection between an internationally wanted terrorist, the police and a powerful political figure, and opened up the whole question of state responsibility for many of the unsolved murders and other crimes. The ramifications from the incident were taken up by many sectors of the media who began to uncover collaboration between the security forces and organised crime. A parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the incident but was unable to access much of the information, with the military and the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) reportedly refusing to give crucial information. The government set up an investigation under Kutlu Savas and in January 1998 Prime Minister Yilmaz began to reveal the findings of the report. Although not all of the report was published (apparently sections relating to the direct involvement of the military remain secret) the findings were damaging enough. The report confirmed what many had alleged: namely that “an execution squad was set up within the state” and that members of MIT, the police and JITEM (the military’s intelligence unit operating under control of the military police, the Jandarma, in rural areas) were all involved. The report confirmed the state involvement in the bombings of the offices of pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, as well as the assassination of its owner Behcet Cantürk. 21 It also confirmed that the state had been responsible for the murder of Kurdish writer and founding member of the Kurdish political party HEP, Musa Anter, in a gun attack in Diyarbakir on 20 September 1992 and that JITEM was given carte blanche for murder.

However, many questions as to the exact nature of complicity by leading members of the state as well as the military remain unanswered. The report concentrates on the period 1993-95 when Tansu Çiller, a bitter opponent of current Prime Minister Yilmaz, was prime minister. She appointed Mehemet Agar as police chief and later minister of the interior with a brief to direct a special police team to smash the PKK’s financial links with Turkey’s major drug dealers. Within two years most were dead. However, many of the killings took place when Turgut Özal was prime minister and Yilmaz initially foreign minister and then later prime minister. The continual reporting of the ramifications of this affair began to upset the top echelons of the military, apparently because they themselves were in danger of being implicated. After a mass “briefing” of selected press by the military, most media dropped Susurluk entirely (after six months solid reporting) and instead switched to attacking the Refah.



Turkey is a democracy functioning within severely imposed limits. Despite proposed changes and government promises, freedom of expression in Turkey, the basic precondition for democracy, remains severely curtailed. People continue to be prosecuted and imprisoned for the non-violent exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Many of the problems stem directly from the nature of the state, its self-perceived secularism and its relationship with its Kurdish minority. Hiding behind such special pleadings as “Kurdish terrorism and irredentism”, “Islamic fundamentalism” and the like, the authorities continue to severely hinder democratic development, and continue to fail to draw an adequate distinction between armed groups in opposition to the state — primarily the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and extreme left-wing organisations — and those peacefully advocating full implementation and protection of the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, in conformity with international obligations voluntarily assumed by the state.

The military, which sees itself as the self-appointed guardian of Kemalist secularist norms, continues to interfere in the political process through its dominant position on the highly influential National Security Council. Such overt military interference in the political process is at odds with the essence of a modern pluralist democracy; it is essential that the military be brought under control of the elected representatives of the people rather than the reverse.

Turkey is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and is therefore bound by its provisions, including the substantive articles establishing the rights to freedom of expression, freedom from racial or ethnic discrimination, and the right to a fair trial; as of 1991 Turkey became subject to the compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court. As detailed above, many of Turkey’s laws and practices are in direct contravention of the Convention, and as of 30 January 1998, 16 of the 116 pending cases at the Court concerned Turkey. Unless Turkey changes its laws and practice, the number of such cases will certainly rise and Turkey will continue to be found wanting by the Court.


Hugh Poulton is a specialist in Balkan and Turkish affairs. He is currently a consultant on Turkey for ARTICLE 19, the international center against censorship, London.




Note 1. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the IAI conference on “US-European Common Approaches to Turkey”, held at Palazzo Rondinini, Rome, on 20-21 November 1998 and funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Back

Note 2. His famous speech of October 1927, Nutuk, in which he explained and justified his actions in the liberation struggle, repeatedly refers to the Kurds as separate from the Turks. Back

Note 3. This reportedly happened at a meeting in Izmit in 1923, but the Sheikh Said revolt in 1925, which led Kemal to backtrack on this promise, also resulted in all references to it subsequently being censored from official accounts of the meeting. See 2000’e Dogru, no. 35, 1978 and no. 46, 1988, and B. Oran, Atatürk Milliyetçiligi: Resmi Ideoloji Disi Bir Inceleme (Ankara: Bilgi Yayinevi, 1993) 3rd ed., p. 211. Back

Note 4. The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 but the new constitution did emphasise the central place of Islam in Articles 2 and 26. Article 2 stated that “The State religion of Turkey is the Muslim religion”, while Article 26 mentioned the Seriat as the holy law. Kemal himself saw this as a purely temporary measure “to satisfy the exigencies of the time. When the first favourable opportunity arises the nation must eliminate these supeRefahluities from our Constitution”. Nutuk, vol. 2, p. 328. Back

Note 5. These were viewed with official distrust and have been subjected to repeated pressures. As a result, the number of Greek Orthodox citizens in Turkey fell from 100,000 at the time of Lausanne to some 10,000 in 1974 and today number only a few thousand. Back

Note 6. This view fitted the prevailing wisdom of the times concerning “the modern state”, which was seen as being a unitary homogenised polity with guaranteed individual rights for all (non-discrimination, equality before the law, etc) but not really for minorities. The ideal was the nation state where the nation (however defined) coexisted completely with the state (i.e. all one nation live in one state without any minorities). In such a state everybody shared a common culture usually propagated by a centralised education system and other methods like the army (national conscription). The “modern state” looked to be secular and industrialised and was often seen as the French or “territorial” model. The other classic model for nationalism, the “ethnic” model, views as members all those sharing certain characteristics (language, culture, etc.) as belonging regardless of where they live. Germany is often held up as the classic ethnic model. Back

Note 7. For example the 1954 closing of the Nation Party which was accused of exploiting Islam for political ends and calling for a return of Seriat. Back

Note 8. Such as Talat Aydemir who attempted coups in February 1962 and again on 20 May 1963. For the latter attempt, he was executed on 5 July 1964. There were two other coup attempts in 1971 led by Navy First Lieutenant Sarp Kuray and Major Atif Ercikan with the support of young Kemalists in the armed forces. Back

Note 9. In the meantime they had continued to pull the strings behind post-coup mass parties. Back

Note 10. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) Annual Report 1998, which covers the situation till the end of 1997 gave a figure of some 28,000 while the Amnesty International Annual Report 1998 gives the figure of 6000 for 1997 alone. Back

Note 11. For more detail, see the article by M. Galletti in this issue, “The Kurdish Issue in Turkey”, p. 123. Back

Note 12. For example, the Refah was noted for its use of computer bases to target its voters. Back

Note 13. European Court of Human Rights, TBKP v. Turkey, Judgement, Strasbourg, 30 January 1998. Back

Note 14. European Court of Human Rights, Case no. 20/1977/804/1007, Judgement, Strasbourg, 25 May 1998. Back

Note 15. Human Rights Watch 1998 Annual Report, p. 283 Back

Note 16. US Department of State, “Turkey”, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, February 1997, p. 1161. Back

Note 17. European Court of Human Rights, Incal v Turkey, Case No. 41/1997/825/1031, Strasbourg, 9 June 1998. Back

Note 18. Commission of the European Communities, Report on developments in relations with Turkey since the entry into force of the customs union, COM(96) 491 final, Brussels, 30 October 1996, p. 7. Back

Note 19. See ARTICLE 19, Turkey: Censorship by the Bullet, September 1992, and ARTICLE 19, “The Kurdish Human Rights Project, the British Bar Human Rights Committee and Medico International”, Censorship and the Rule of law in Turkey: Violations of press freedom and attacks on Özgür Gündem. Back

Note 20. The clampdown on Hizbullah gathered pace with the clampdown on “fundamentalism” following the outlawing of the Refah in January 1998. It seems that Hizbullah was no longer needed in the fight against Kurdish activists. A detailed report on Hizbullah by the head of anti-terrorism branch of the Sanli URefaha security forces was distributed to all governors and police chiefs in March 1998, and on 3 April it was announced that 79 Hizbullah members including leading activists in the organisation had been caught in Diyarbakir and that some 1,000 others were now being hunted. Back

Note 21. The report stated “Although it was obvious who Cantürk was and what he did [the report alleged he was involved in drug smuggling as well as financing the newspaper], the state was unable to cope with him. Because legal routes were inadequate ‘the newspaper Özgür Gündem was blown into the air with plastic explosives and when Cantürk moved to set up a new establishment . . . it was decided by the Turkish Security Organisation to kill him and the decision was carried out.’” Back