Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, head of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People (MAZLUM-DER), told Sunday’s Zaman that there is no statute of limitations when it comes to charges involving torture. The first step in this process of reconciliation with Turkey’s past, he said, should be a state-issued apology to victims of torture.
“Turkey has legislated important laws in order to prevent torture. But the first and foremost condition for protecting societal peace is being able to implement the laws you have made,” Ünsal remarked. He went on to say that periods of military administration of the state in Turkish history were marked by an increase in torture, and were also times during which legal controls fell to a low level -- a sharp contrast with the Turkey of today, which has set out on a course to harmonize its legislation with the EU acquis and has seen cultural shifts that have decreased the frequency of torture cases. Difficulties remain, but it is high time for Turkey to face the human rights violations in its past, Ünsal said.
Noting a significant drop in the number of cases having to do with torture opened against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in recent years, Diyarbakır Bar Association President Emin Aktar spoke about granting permission for individuals to file cases with Turkey’s Constitutional Court, part of the constitutional reforms slated for the upcoming referendum, saying: “If the constitutional amendments are approved, Turkey will face many topics, including torture. Very important gains are going to be secured by the Constitutional Court, which is going to open up a new channel in domestic legislation, the right to individual application to the court.” Aktar told Today’s Zaman that in order for Turkey to truly face up to its past, the entire high judiciary, starting with the Constitutional Court, must act with an understanding that is based on expanding freedoms and human rights.
Turkey’s inability to face up to the torture in its past despite the passage of 30 years is directly connected to its inability to confront the 1980 coup. If the referendum passes, Temporary Article 15 of the Constitution will be annulled, paving the way for the trial of the generals responsible for the coup; if it passes, there will also be a way to try former soldiers in civilian courts.
Bayram Bozyel is the leader of the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR) -- and was himself tortured for years at the Diyarbakır No. 5 Military Prison. He says he and others he knows plan to take steps to make sure the unresolved issues of the past are addressed after the referendum. He notes that they haven’t made any such move over the course of the past three decades because “it would be impossible to get results within the context of such a regime,” referring to the lack of legal recourse -- a situation they hope will be remedied by the passage of the constitutional amendments.
“People underwent systematic torture in that period. The captains, lieutenants and sergeants that tortured us in Diyarbakır weren’t an isolated incident. … What took place did so via a chain of command as plain as day. As it is, the coup leader, Gen. Kenan Evren, expressed this when he said, ‘So we shouldn’t hang them, but should we then feed them!’ Can it be said that it was a coincidence that torture took place in military prisons like Metris, Erzurum and Mamak? There was a systematic attempt and desire to get rid of active youth and political awareness. They didn’t do it all in an instant like the Nazis. By stretching it out over time, they aimed to cause people to lose their memories, self-confidence and health,” Bozyel explains.
Lawyers also suppressed
In the past, civilian prosecutors attempting to open court cases against coup leaders and members of the military have been disbarred, Bozyel notes, expressing hope that similarly minded prosecutors will take action if the referendum measure passes next month.
Bozyel also expresses pleasure at what he says is an increased awareness of the torture that followed the 1980 coup thanks to the debate over the upcoming referendum. “We believe that after the referendum, an opportunity will be born to come face to face with these periods of torture in our history. I personally am planning to open a court case, as are some of my acquaintances. There’s a more serious awareness now regarding those days. After the referendum we will exercise our right to seek justice as victims by starting investigations, and the prosecutors will accompany us. If the referendum passes, then there are a few ways in which Turkey will benefit. Facing historical torture will be the leading success from this. We victims will have the right to file cases with the judiciary,” he stresses.
Facing the past essential to building societal peace
Bozyel says that just as many other nations that have struggled with torture problems and handled this through the establishment of investigative commissions, Turkey also has a real need to face its dark past. The HAK-PAR leader says that not just victims of torture but also those who inflicted it can contribute to this process.
Bozyel says refreshing society’s memory can serve as a form of therapy and contribute to the solution of many problems. “Certainly we won’t be able to take to account all of those responsible for inflicting torture, but at least there could be confessions regarding practices that did not result in death. Those who personally inflicted torture can also contribute to shedding light on that dark period. I don’t know whether they’ll apologize or express remorse, but Turkey needs to experience this. All of these things must come out in the open and be discussed,” he argues.
Bozyel cautions that if society does not come to terms with what happened in the past, its troubles will continue. “If the traumas that were experienced continue to develop into different problems they will appear in everyday life with different symptoms,” he says.
Noting that permission to try those responsible for the coup only constitutes the judicial dimension of addressing this period in Turkish history, Bozyel says that for victims and their torturers to sit across from one another and talk was the crux of a second, far more important dimension.