Turkey yet to confront legacy of Feb. 28 military intervention

February 26, 2012, Sunday/ 11:23:00/ FATMA DİŞLİ ZIBAK

Sezin Dilipak had to give up her childhood dream of becoming a doctor when she was in her fifth year at İstanbul’s prestigious Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty due to a headscarf ban imposed on scarf-wearing students in the aftermath of the military intervention of 1997, known as the Feb. 28 post-modern coup.

After a 13-year break during which she lived overseas, established a family and had a son, she returned to medical school last year after a student amnesty law and the controversial ban on headscarves at universities was eased. Although she grasped the chance to complete her medical education 13 years later, Dilipak says she is now far from pursuing a career as a doctor and thinks even when she tries to compensate for her lost years she is still paying the price.

A coalition government led by a now-defunct conservative party was forced to step down by the military on Feb. 28, 1997. Not only were fatal blows dealt to fundamental rights and freedoms after the coup, but democracy and the rule of law were also suspended. The coup introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious life, with an unofficial but widely practiced ban on the use of the Islamic headscarf.

“It is like a baby who learned to walk but returned to its days of crawling again,” she told Sunday’s Zaman in explaining the difficulties in adapting to school life again. “I take courses with remedial students. I am treated like a remedial student at school. Other friends in the classroom who are younger than me do not know much about the reasons why people like me had to leave school,” she said, adding that she had to study for one more year to get a diploma. Despite leaving her home back in Dubai and separating her son, who is now continuing primary school in Turkey, from his father, Dilipak still does not want any positive discrimination from the state to compensate for her lost years.  “An apology from the state would be fine but would not change anything; however, it could raise awareness among the people about the tragedies that took place during Feb. 28,” she said.

On Tuesday, Turkey will mark the 15th anniversary of this unarmed intervention. Although 15 years have passed since the postmodern coup in which the military overthrew the coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan of the now-defunct Welfare Party (RP), the coup era seems to have maintained its grip on Turkey. Uneasy with the existence of a conservative party -- the RP -- in government, the General Staff began briefing members of the judiciary, university rectors and journalists on religious fundamentalism at its headquarters in early 1997. The National Security Council (MGK) made several decisions during a meeting on Feb. 28 and presented them to then-Prime Minister Erbakan for approval. Erbakan was forced to sign the decisions. He subsequently resigned, handing over the Prime Ministry to his coalition partner, Tansu Çiller. According to Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, head of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER), for justice to be served for the victims of the Feb.28 intervention, individuals who were tried during this process should be retried and instigators of the Feb. 28 intervention should be brought to trial.  Ünsal said individuals who were tried in courts in this period did not have a fair trial because the judges and prosecutors at that time were under the influence of military members who used to invite them to the military barracks and brief them about rising “reactionaryism” in the country.

  The second thing Ünsal suggested for the confrontation with the Feb. 28 coup is to bring the commanders of the time who staged this unarmed coup and then President Süleyman Demirel before the judiciary. “Although Demirel was informed about an illegal group, the West Study Group [BÇG], in the military, he turned a blind eye to it and failed to take legal action against the members of this group, so he became a part of this group and the offenses they committed. That’s why he should be tried,” Ünsal told Sunday’s Zaman.

The BÇG, which directed the Feb. 28 process, was a group established within the military to categorize politicians, intellectuals, soldiers and bureaucrats according to their religious and ideological backgrounds.

None of the military figures who had a hand in the Feb. 28 postmodern coup have stood trial in Turkey so far. Only last week, prosecutors summoned four civil servants from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to testify as part of a probe into the Feb. 28 intervention. The civil servants were among the attendees at BÇG meetings that were held by the General Staff to brief judges and prosecutors on “reactionaryism” during the Feb. 28 process. The Ankara deputy chief prosecutor’s office is conducting the probe due to criminal complaints filed against the perpetrators of this intervention.  Considering the fact that Turkey has not yet taken any concrete steps to call these perpetrators to account, some observers believe that the country could experience the same sort of tragedy again. Retired military judge Ümit Kardaş said although there have been some symbolic changes to normalize civilian-military relations in recent years, and the military has withdrawn its boundaries to a certain extent, it is not possible to say that the era of military coups or interventions has ended in Turkey without making the necessary legal and constitutional amendments. “The General Staff is still an autonomous institution. It is not possible for the Defense Ministry to monitor it. The military is not transparent, not accountable and not supervised. It still has its own judiciary. When these problems have not yet been addressed, how can we say that Feb. 28 will not take place again?” asked Kardaş.

The former chief of the intelligence department in the Turkish Police Department, Bülent Orakoğlu, said since it is no longer possible to stage a full-fledged military coup, the military is seeking to stage postmodern coups like Feb. 28 as revealed over the past several years. Turkey started confronting its coup tradition back in 2007 when civilian prosecutors launched an investigation into the discovery of hand grenades in a shanty house in İstanbul. The investigation led to the Ergenekon probe, the greatest probe launched thus far to challenge pro-coup factions in the country.

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