Gendarmerie General Commander Gen. Necdet Özel, who the government hopes to promote to the rank of chief of General Staff in two years, has ordered his staff to launch a new program to relieve the pain and suffering of the victims’ families, which have become increasingly critical of the military in recent years.
Özel decided to take this new measure in response to rising suspicions of family members of soldiers who died while in battle or in accidents. To rebuild confidence in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), family members of fallen soldiers or soldiers killed as a result of an accident are taken to the scene of the death and have an opportunity to analyze the area and meet the commanders and friends of their loved ones.
The measure, which families appreciate, has helped relieve some doubts and questions about the deaths of the soldiers. The program is currently only in practice in the gendarmerie, but families hope similar programs will soon be launched by other force commanders as well. The practice was first put into effect on Dec. 23 in Hakkari. The family of Murat Kaya, who suffered severe injuries as a result of an accident on Nov. 22, 2010, while doing his military service at the Güzelkonak military outpost in Şemdinli, Hakkari province, was taken to the outpost on Dec. 20. Kaya had died on Dec. 4 despite receiving treatment for his burn injuries at the Gülhane Military Academy of Medicine (GATA) in Ankara.
Kaya’s parents and uncle met with soldiers and eyewitnesses working at the outpost as well as with the military prosecutor. Even though going to the scene was emotionally difficult, the family was very happy with the new measure.
38 families have filed cases against military
While more than 42,000 people have been killed in the 30-year fight against terrorism, the increase in the number of soldiers who have died while serving over the years has impacted the way families view the TSK. The weakness and negligence on the part of the military in terrorist attacks over the past five years has created concerns about the TSK. While in the early 2000s there were barely any lawsuits against the General Staff, 38 families reportedly took legal action against the TSK in 2010.
What pushed the families of soldiers who died while serving their country to embark on a legal battle with the General Staff was the increasing tendency to question the extent to which investigations were handled. The families of slain soldiers voiced their criticism of the General Staff at the soldiers’ funerals.
The main reason for the loss of confidence in the military was conflicting accounts given by the TSK over what happened during incidents and how the soldiers had died.
A number of incidents give a glimpse into what went wrong in military investigations, including the following:
On May 27, 2009, a land mine explosion near the Hantepe military outpost in Çukurca, Hakkari province, killed six troops and injured eight others, one critically. The General Staff originally announced that this land mine attack was organized by PKK terrorists who snuck into Turkey from northern Iraq, but it later came out that the mines were actually planted by Turkish soldiers. The incident triggered speculation that this attack was the extension of a deliberate attempt to hinder a meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Türk, the leader of the now-defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP), a pro-Kurdish party. The two had not come together for a long time.
In a voice recording leaked to the media on June 25, 2009, Çukurca Brigade Commander Brig. Gen. Zeki Es declared that he was responsible for the land mine attack, saying, “I ordered the placement of those land mines.” In this recording, Hakkari Division Commander Maj. Gen. Gürbüz Kaya also said: “We will definitely execute the plan we devised. There is nothing to worry about.”
The Public Prosecutor’s Office also verified later through the findings of the Gendarmerie Criminal Laboratory that the land mines that killed the six soldiers were registered in the inventory of the TSK. As a result Es was arrested and Kaya denied promotion at the August meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ). The families of the soldiers who were killed in the incident have launched a legal case against the TSK.
İsmail Yıldız, father of deceased Pvt. Adil Yıldız, underlined that justice had been served with Es’s arrest. “We grieve for the loss of our sons. Efforts should be made to ensure other families do not suffer like us and that mothers do not have to weep after their sons. My misery would not have been so great had my son been killed by terrorists. It gives us great agony to see that our sons were victim of negligence on the part of the military,” he said.
Nail Çelik, father of deceased Pvt. Cafer Çelik, also expressed his resentment and anger, saying: “Those responsible for our suffering and the deaths of our sons should be punished severely. We will never give up on this.” He is from among the group that pioneered this legal battle. Es was convicted of negligent homicide and sent to Mamak Military Prison in November. Kaya, who was indicted for his role in the Sledgehammer coup plot, is currently on trial.
Lawsuits against military on the rise
In another story with a twist, the General Staff announced that four soldiers had been killed in an accidental grenade explosion at a military outpost in Karakoçan, Elazığ province, on Aug. 17, 2009. However, when official reports describing the incident were published in the liberal Taraf daily, it was revealed that the deaths of the four soldiers were not the outcome of an accident.
According to report, Lt. Mehmet Tümer punished Pvt. İbrahim Öztürk, a soldier under his command, by forcing him to hold in his hand a grenade whose pin had been pulled as punishment for sleeping while on guard duty. The incident was reviewed after a leak, and Lt. Tümer was arrested.
Some cases eventually ended up in the hands of justices at the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) because the families felt justice had not been served in Turkish courts. The families of 23 officers and soldiers who lost their lives in a plane crash on May 17, 2001 contested the denial of the status of martyrdom, which would give them social security benefits. When the Military High Administrative Court (AYİM) ruled against the families, the case went to the ECtHR.
The family of Sgt. Hüseyin Taşkın, who died in an accident in the Gabar Mountains, also took legal action against the military to ensure that their son would officially be called a martyr and they would benefit from the privileges provided to the families of soldiers who died while serving their country.