Activist Yurdatapan: May 1, 1977 massacre should be investigated

Şanar Yurdatapan (Photo: Today's Zaman)

May 06, 2012, Sunday/ 17:07:00

An artist and activist who was part of the leftist movement in 1968 has said that an investigation into the events of May 1, 1977, would help the country confront its past.

“Prosecutors asked for the 1977 Taksim Square massacre to be probed within the indictment of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup investigation,” said Şanar Yurdatapan, who started an initiative called Small Provincial Assemblies that establishes dialogue groups with representatives in each province to meet monthly and discuss issues with lawmakers and mayors selected from the province.

On May 1, 1977, people had gathered in the Taksim Square to celebrate Labor Day when gunfire erupted and machine guns pelted the crowd with bullets, killing at least 34 people.

“The assailants have never been found. A real investigation of the May 1 incident in 1977 -- which was the second Bloody Sunday -- would also help us to understand what really happened on the Bloody Sunday on Feb. 16, 1969,” he said.

Yurdatapan, who lived in exile for more than 11 years following the Sept. 12, 1980 coup, was stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 1983.

‘Prosecutors asked for the 1977 Taksim Square massacre to be probed within the indictment of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup investigation. The incident needs to be investigated. People had gathered in the square to celebrate May 1 when gunfire erupted and machine guns pelted the crowd with bullets [killing at least 34 people]. The assailants have never been found. A real investigation of the May 1 incident in 1977 -- which was the second Bloody Sunday -- would also help us to understand what really happened on the Bloody Sunday on Feb. 16, 1969’

We asked him about his assessment of the trial regarding the Sept. 12 coup, which started in April. Many victims of the bloody Sept. 12 coup, including left-wingers, right-wingers, nationalists, Alevis, prosecutors and politicians, were pleased with the decision by prosecutors to seek life imprisonment for 1980 military coup leaders Gen. Kenan Evren and Gen. Tahsin Şahinkaya and the acceptance of the indictment by the court.

The process began in response to criminal complaints filed against the perpetrators of the coup with several prosecutors in various places across Turkey following the abolition of Article 15 of the Constitution, which had granted immunity to the leaders of the coup, made possible by a referendum held on Sept. 12, 2010. The complaints mainly target the retired Evren, former president and chief of General Staff, and his collaborators.

More than 30 years after the Sept. 12, 1980 military takeover, a criminal court has begun to hear the case against two retired, surviving leaders of the 1980 coup. What is your opinion about how far the trial will and should go?

It is a highly debated issue how far the trial can go and how many people can be tried. International experiences show that if you try to put on trial as many people as possible, the process gets tangled. It becomes hard to stop at a certain point. First of all, we have to understand what the events were that led to the Sept. 12 coup. Why was the public relieved by the announcement of the military coup? Because there were massacres, conflict and unrest in the country. People did not feel safe when going to work or to school or waiting at the bus stop. There was instability and provocations in the country, designed by some forces to prepare the groundwork for the coup.

Who were those forces?

Those forces are referred as the “deep state” usually, but it is obvious there was a body organized in the state -- they were not secret like the gangs of Susurluk [a clandestine alliance between police officers, politicians and the mafia that was exposed after a car crash in 1996 near the Balıkesir town of Susurluk]. Way in the past, it was referred as the Seferberlik Tetkik Kurulu [Mobilization Study Committee]; then it was referred as “counter-guerilla” in the 1970s. Later, it was the Özel Harp Dairesi [Special Warfare Center] and then it was referred to as the Özel Kuvvetler Komutanlığı [Special Forces Commandership] after the fight against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] started. Those “special” forces planned and organized professional murders; these murders still have not been solved today. There were many bloody incidents that made people worried; for example, bombs exploded in market places and people who waited at bus stops were randomly killed by machine guns. Ordinary people feared for their and their loved ones' lives. Those feelings were made prominent among the public prior to the Sept. 12 coup with the help of the media, which fueled all those fears. And the public was prepared to appreciate a “savior.”

Do you think the coup trial should also bring those responsible in the media to court?

The people in the media who held high-level positions at the time can be brought to trial, but there is no need to go down to lower levels. We can't expect everybody to speak out, especially if they have no other workplace to go to. There were some newspapers that openly provoked the public. Those media bosses and editors-in-chief should be brought to court and put on trial. There are different methods for confronting the past. One is through truth commissions, like in South Africa.

‘Why would military personnel be more powerful than civilians?’

That's another thing I want to ask you. How did they manage this process of confrontation?

First of all, there needs to be a legal ground that aims to reveal the truth. The most important thing is to show the truth. When the truth is out there, it is not as important to punish 80-year-old generals. There are of course those prison directors who enthusiastically tortured people in prison, and their names are known. Obviously, they should be tried and punished. People who tortured thousands of all ages [including individuals under 18] at the Mamak, Diyarbakır and Metris prisons should face the judiciary.

You know Kenan Evren said there was no systematic torture in prisons and that military personnel were not the perpetrators -- prison guards did it and those perpetrators were punished.

If police or prison guards or their directors or military personnel use illegal methods, they are sure their superiors will tolerate and approve of it; actually, they received orders to torture people at the time. Is Evren kidding us? Those things are well-known facts. No police officer would beat somebody because of fear of losing his job if this kind of behavior was not approved of at the highest level. I know this well from my experience as a child of a father who was in the military.

Would you share with us your childhood observations in relation to the military?

At official celebrations, my father always stood behind the governor! I'd be surprised that even though everybody knew my father was the most powerful person wherever he served, he still stood behind, of course in line with official procedures, but this [attitude] was not sincere. I would ask myself if the adults were playing some kind of game. I always felt that we military people -- I was always on the side of the military as a child -- would do everything well and do it much better than civilians; civilians would destroy the order. We, the military, were right. I had put myself in a different class than civilians. My father was a compassionate person toward us in the family and, of course, I cannot know if he treated others badly or not. But my question is why a small child of a military man would think this way, that he is superior to civilians.

Was he in the land forces?

Yes, and his last military rank was lieutenant general. After the May 27 [1960 coup], he was appointed military governor to the province of Bursa, but he protested the appointment because the interior minister was a major general, which is a lower rank than my father's, and he said it was against tradition to serve under a lower-ranking general.

‘Justice system neither neutral nor independent’

You know opinion is divided regarding the trial of those involved in the Sept. 12 coup. While one side supports the trial, the other side says it is just a game played by the government.

I am not among those who don't believe in the trial, but I have no faith in the justice system of Turkey. I believe the justice system is neither neutral nor independent. Therefore, we have to watch closely what happens during the trial.

You made your support publicly known. Would you explain why?

Ten years ago, nobody believed that generals would ever be put on trial in Turkey. Now the trial of coup leaders is possible. Does the government have other intentions behind this? We cannot know for sure. However, we know that the indictment talks about the atmosphere of terror in the country, and a series of provocations and mass murders took place across Turkey. The indictment notes the events that led to chaos in society, including the Sivas and Maraş massacres, which are widely regarded to be the work of illegal groups organized within the state. It is obvious that the case will not be limited to the trial of the two coup leaders.

The indictment also includes the painful memories of coup victims who were subjected to barbaric methods of torture. Apparently, these techniques were used by special police and military teams on individuals who were detained by the junta, and torture was mostly used as a means to force testimony from suspects. Do you think the indictment also serves the purpose of telling the truth to those who did not know or believe that suspects were tortured at the time?

There is nothing to be done for those people who believe only what they want to believe. We see that some other countries have dealt with such issues by establishing truth commissions. The state can lead the way to the establishment of those centers, or civil society can demand them. There are already such demands. But now everybody is watching to see how the coup trial will progress.

It has been 35 years after the tragic events at the end of the 1977 May Day celebrations in İstanbul's Taksim Square. A recent revelation by leading a Turkish socialist, Professor Halil Berktay, brought a new angle to the Taksim Square events. He said in a recent interview with the Taraf daily that because various leftist groups were engaged in a bitter ideological struggle at the time, they are responsible for the 1977 massacre, not the deep state. You were at the square on May 1, 1977, although you left before the tragic incident. What are your views?

Halil Berktay is right that the leftists were fighting because of their ideological differences. His self-criticism is real. However, it is hard to agree with Berktay on the issue that the massacre was the work of leftists. There are several eyewitnesses who saw unidentified men firing from certain locations. And prosecutors asked for the 1977 Taksim Square massacre to be probed within the indictment of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup investigation. The incident needs to be investigated. People had gathered in the square to celebrate May 1 when gunfire erupted and machine guns pelted the crowd with bullets [killing 34 people]. The assailants have never been found. A real investigation of the May 1 incident in 1977 -- which was the second Bloody Sunday -- would also help us to understand what really happened on the Bloody Sunday on Feb. 16, 1969 [Bloody Sunday -- “Kanlı Pazar” in Turkish -- is the name given to a counter-revolutionary response to leftists who were protesting the arrival of the United States Sixth Fleet in Turkey. The demonstration was broken up by police. A counter-revolutionary force attacked a large group of protesters with knives and sticks. Two protesters were killed].


‘Write your suggestions for the new constitution and we will evaluate them’

Turkey is going through the process of drafting a new constitution to replace the 1982 Constitution, which was prepared following the 1980 military coup, and you've been involved in civil society's efforts to contribute to this process. How is it going? What observations have you made?

There is an assertion by the parliamentary Constitutional [Reconciliation] Commission that the new constitution will be made by the people. This is very hard to do and takes a lot of time. There are certain standards adopted in Europe on how to ensure the participation of civil society in such processes; there are certain methods for that. According to those methods, there is no such thing as “write your suggestions and we will evaluate them.” Actually, this is the most simplistic approach. A better approach would be “write down your suggestions and then come talk with us.” If we go a little further, there is another approach: “Let's talk together.” A more sophisticated approach is “let's do it together.” In Turkey, the tendency is to use the most simplistic, centrist approach: “write your suggestions and we will evaluate them.” However, there is some valuable work being done by civil society in the constitution-making process, especially the work by the TOBB [Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges] and by TEPAV [Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey] is notable. As part of our initiative [Small Provincial Assemblies] we are holding meetings, but they are not going so well because people do not participate. There are reasons for that. First, they cannot see how the constitution will affect their lives. Secondly, they don't think it is their job; they think their representative in Parliament should do it. Thirdly, and this is the worst one, they think that the government will do whatever it has in mind and will not really care about what people want even though it says it does.


‘We have a long way to go regarding freedom of expression’

You have been working for freedom of expression in Turkey for a long time. After so many years, where do you see the state of freedom of expression in Turkey today? What are the difficulties and what improvements have been made?

On one the hand, one can say there have been many changes, and many examples can be given to prove there have been improvements. But on the other hand, you may say nothing has changed, and many examples can be found to prove that, too. Which is correct and what is the truth? Both are. It is not only about changing the legislation. The implementation of legislation in a very short time is very difficult when the social mentality remains the same: a culture of obedience! We have a long way to go.


[PROFILE] Şanar Yurdatapan

Şanar Yurdatapan is a musician, artist and activist who was part of the leftist movement in 1968. He became well-known as a composer and songwriter in the 1970s. In addition to his contributions to popular and traditional music, Şanar has written music for films and plays. Following the military coup of 1980, he left Turkey and went to Germany, where he lived in exile for more than 11 years. The Turkish military regime stripped him of their citizenship in 1983. He was able to return to Turkey in December 1991, and the following year his citizenship was restored. Yurdatapan is the informal coordinator of the Freedom of Expression Initiative, a group of young people who work with people who are being prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression (www.antenna-tr.org). He has published 46 freedom of expression booklets and 12 annuals. He also wrote a work of fiction titled “Fatoş'un Günlüğü” (Fatosh's Diary), which was published in 1998. He also wrote essays, titled “The Green and the Red Series,” with Islamic writer/journalist Abdurrahman Dilipak. Since 2007, he has been active in conducting meetings for the Small Provincial Assemblies and establishing dialogue groups with representatives in each province to meet monthly and discuss issues with lawmakers and mayors selected from the province.

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