Following the widely reported news of private Uğur Kantar’s torture and killing in a military prison, or “disko,” last year, the military’s newest draft of its disciplinary codes suggests the removal of the notorious on-base prisons, where torture of conscripts has long been common practice. But while experts laud the move, they also say a decades-old culture of impunity and endemic physical abuse still reigns in Turkey’s armed forces.
But when Uğur’s father, Aydın Kantar, was contacted by some of Uğur’s fellow conscripts over his son’s suspicious death, his worst fears were confirmed: Uğur was been taken to a military prison where he was badly beaten, kept hungry and thirsty for three days and frequently tied to a chair and left in the sun for many hours, resulting in his eventual death. Spurring national outrage and the trial of three prison guards in a civilian court, the case of Kantar is unique only for the public attention that it received. Known in military slang as a “disko,” the kind of military prison where Kantar was tortured has long been a source of terror for the conscripts who must serve up to 15 months of compulsory service in Turkey’s military.
This week, prompted by the public outcry over Kantar’s death, Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel proposed to redraft the military’s disciplinary codes and abolish the prisons, suggesting that conscripts be docked leave time rather than be consigned to the notorious facilities. It is a long overdue proposal in a military that has for decades ignored and covered up the torture that occurs in the “disko,” but experts say a decades-old culture of secrecy, unaccountability and endemic physical abuse still reigns in Turkey’s armed forces.
“We’re aware of many serious cases of torture, especially in the disko, but far more common are acts of extreme humiliation or routine, serious physical abuse,” said Tolga Islam, founder of Conscripts’ Rights (Askerhaklari.com) a foundation dedicated to routing out abuse and mistreatment in the military. The first of its kind in Turkey when it was created in April of last year, the group has already received over 600 letters from former conscripts through its small website. Islam receives daily emails about cases ranging from repeated physical abuse to torture.
“Those applications come from everywhere. We have 70 letters regarding torture in the disko alone. And what is most disturbing is that we have letters documenting incidents from 20 years back -- nothing has changed in 20 years. These letters say the same thing -- ‘I was in the disko for three days, but it felt like three years,’ or ‘I was in the disko for seven days, but it was seven years for me’.”
Serving as a conscripted noncommissioned officer until last year, Islam says he was immediately driven to start the group after leaving the military. While serving, he remembers witnessing a commander hit a conscript in the face several times after claiming that the recruit had been smiling while he was talking. Islam later helped the soldier write an appeal to the parliamentary Human Rights Commission about the beating. He also recalls countless other times he heard about torture or extreme physical punishment, adding: “While I was serving I was shocked to constantly hear stories from enlisted soldiers of abuse and violence. I asked myself, why is nobody doing anything about this?”
One does not have to go far to hear of the kind of violence which conscripts might face. On a recent night in İstanbul’s Kasımpaşa district, Ercan Yılmaz recounted his stories of abuse during his conscript days, saying that he was “locked in a room with human feces for hours on end” because he had angered an officer at his base. “It was unbearable. They must keep a special room for that purpose because I knew others who said they were locked in such a room,” Yılmaz said. Others questioned for this article who did not give their names said they had been slapped or beaten by superiors.
On one video uploaded to Youtube, soldiers stand at attention in a barracks while a man in uniform -- it is not evident what his rank is -- marches up and down the file, slapping or kicking soldiers with great force in the stomach or groin, causing some of them to fall to the ground.
Islam says violence is extremely difficult for recruits to challenge, given its jarring psychological effects. “Many conscripts accept abuse as a common thing; they’re conditioned by an instance or two of humiliation to think that they don’t have any way to challenge authority.” The difference between military and civilian law also fosters feelings of intimidation and helplessness. “For 20 years they are subject to civilian laws, and one day they become soldiers, subject to military rules. The regulations are very different, and they don’t know the rules. Commanders often use this fact to also get away with things that are arbitrary and even against military codes,” he says.
The lack of effective channels through which to challenge a superior is another serious obstacle. Ümit Kardaş, a retired military judge, says that “in cases of abuse, soldiers can only apply to the superior directly above them, who is often already consenting to the abuse.” The system does not punish “its own,” he adds. “When there are cases of this sort within the military’s own courts, maybe some of the guards will be punished. But the superiors are acquitted.”
The problem confronting the conscripts nonetheless extends far beyond commanders who are drunk with power. In perhaps the strangest twist in the story of the disko, Islam says prison guards themselves are chosen from the ranks of conscripts, often from the same group that they oversee -- and sometimes torture. “These are people who have been taken from the same group of soldiers, some know each other. And what is most incredible is that, from what we understand, commanders don’t necessarily tell guards how to torture or how far to go. In the disko, they give them impunity to do what they wish.”
It is chillingly similar, Islam says, to a notorious 1971 experiment by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, where participants were randomly given roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison. Within less than a week, the mock guards had quickly “become sadistic,” subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture. The experiment was shut down after only six days.
“The diskos are the perfect real life example of this experiment. Guards begin to think, ‘We have this person in our prison for 24 hours. Nobody will stop us if we torture him.’” That disturbing license for abuse leads prison guards develop their own practices of torture, from slapping inmates who make eye contact with guards to severe and prolonged beatings, deliberate malnourishment, confining recruits to cramped and filthy spaces, or leaving them shackled outside in the sun for prolonged periods of time.
While former military judge Kardaş says that such practices follow a “hard logic” of instilling fear and a sense of arbitrary control among recruits, at times even that vague reason for torture seems to be absent. In Uğur’s case, it is difficult to understand what the torture was meant to communicate, given that his unit had just days left before its term of service was over. “The only way to explain it is that there’s a culture of impunity here, one that gives people unimaginable power and allows abuse to go on for years,” Islam argues.
The army’s recent suggestion to suspend the prisons may be a good step towards ending the worst institution of that “culture of impunity,” but Islam and others say the problem lies much deeper. “This is going to make it harder to torture conscripts for sure, but if commanders want to continue this practice, they can certainly find a way,” says Lale Kemal, a journalist and expert in Turkish civil-military relations. “The problem is always what it has been: oversight and ways to punish people at all levels of the chain of command.” Kemal points to the death of Pvt. Murat Polat, who was beaten to death in an Adana military prison in 2005. One prison guard was sentenced to life in prison -- a term that was quickly commuted to 25 years -- but no superiors were ever charged. “This is the culture that has to be put to an end,” adds Kemal.
Both Islam and former military judge Kardaş say that given the systemic, “top to bottom” nature of abuse, the only solution is to introduce an empowered civilian oversight mechanism, which could hear complaints and punish all ranks. “The courts need to be this instrument. Impartial civilian courts need to be introduced into the hierarchy. At any rate, these conscripts are essentially civilians, and they should be subject to civilian law,” says Kardaş.
Until such oversight is adopted, “there isn’t much conscripts can do,” Islam says. “The system is designed to hide abuse. Our organization is trying to change this by providing civilian oversight and empowering conscripts, but the scale of our organization is very limited and there are thousands of cases. In addition, there’s still so much fear. Many are scared to even seek our help. That’s the mentality we have to change.”