In early April, the president of the banned Turkish Peace Association invited friends from END (European Nuclear Disarmament) and other peace groups across Europe to join him and the TPA executive in Istanbul in celebrating the tenth anniversary of the founding of the TPA. They planned to hold a public peace forum and a press conference.

The TPA was systematically suppressed after the 1980 military coup. The Turkish government had made much in recent years about its “return to democracy.” Here was an opportunity to judge to what extent things really had improved. If it were possible to hold a public discussion in Istanbul about nuclear disarmament and NATO, if it were possible for members of the TPA to put their views freely to the press, then some new dimension of democratic activity had opened up in Turkish life.

A few days before I set off for Istanbul, the police banned both the peace forum and the press conference.

The 1980 military coup followed years of mounting civil strife. Rival political factions of left and right took to assassinating each other in the streets, killing many hundreds. The widespread sense of popular relief that followed the coup did not last long. The military authorities immediately instituted a regime of sweeping and indiscriminate terror, aimed mainly at the left. Between 1980 and 1984 there were roughly 180,000 arrests; 65,000 were detained, 42,000 sentenced; 326 were sentenced to death, of whom 27 were hung.

The military regime disbanded many organizations, including the trade union federation DISK, women’s and youth organizations, and political parties as well as the Turkish Peace Association. Officials and members of these organizations were arrested; many of the trials drag on to this day.

After a referendum accepted a new constitution in 1982, General Kemal Evren became president, with extraordinary powers: he can veto any constitutional changes and outlaw political parties, for instance. A general election in 1983, with only right-wing parties permitted to stand and with strict censorship of the press, brought the victory of the Motherland Party of Prime Minister Ozal.

The arrival of civilian government did not mean an end to torture in the prisons. Moreover, cases initiated in the martial law period continued to be dealt with by the military courts. A defendant found guilty by a military court can appeal to a higher court. If the appeal is upheld, then the military prosecutor can demand a retrial and the whole circuit starts over again. One of the TPA ex-prisoners, Ali Taygun, explained the process one evening in Istanbul. He pushed the dinner plates aside and began to depict a maze of routes and pathways. Swirls and curves, acronyms and nodes, multiplied beneath his pen. It was like a board game invented by Borges.

Many people are still trapped in these labyrinths. Thousands are still in prison. Others, out on bail, have lost their jobs and passports; they cannot work or travel. The newspaper Milliyet estimates that over 300,000 Turks are prohibited from leaving the country. More than 8,000 Turks who live abroad cannot return home because of charges outstanding against them for disseminating “information that would harm the prestige or influence of the State.” Groups in Europe fiercely denounced the human rights situation in Turkey; some European governments (notably West Germany) withdrew credits. In response, the Turkish government has slowly sought to present a more acceptable face. In April 1987, Turkey formally applied for full membership in the European Economic Community.

I went to Turkey to inquire about the state of affairs there. What I found was not a “return to democracy” but the substitution of a different political model, a system of “authoritarian democracy.” This combines some formal procedures of political democracy — elections, parliament, political parties — with rigorous discipline of all aspects of public life. The state seeks to subordinate civil society by intimidating all forms of oppositional thinking and activity. The headlines of the 1982 Constitution mouth a democratic discourse, while the small print locks civil society in a vice of authoritarian discipline.

Prison Life

Ali and his friends were in prison for over three years. Ali Taygun had been, before his arrest, director of the State Theater Company of Istanbul. He had worked at the Yale Drama School. He lost his job, of course, and cannot now work in the theater. He has a standing invitation to work with a theater company in the US, but his passport has been withdrawn. We sit drinking tea in Istanbul’s most celebrated hotel, the Pera Palace, the wood and stone embodiment of a certain notion of civilization — this hotel was built in the late 19th century to receive travelers at the end of their journey on the Orient Express. The sense of elegance, of old-fashioned luxury, is overpowering and incongruous as Ali chats peaceably about his experiences as a political prisoner. He explains how, when the verdict of guilty was announced by the military judges, he only realized what had happened when he saw the face of a friend, a British diplomat, go white. “For hours I found it impossible to connect the words of the verdict and the sentence with my own fate.”

In prison, he and his comrades rigged up a system for heating water in a dustbin. They made a “wire” from silver foil taken from cigarette packets, and poked a metal coathanger into a socket in a wall. The heating element was made from an aluminum fast food container strapped between pieces of wood. The prisoners had a strict rota for washing and cleaning their quarters. Keeping themselves and their cells scrupulously clean was both a health measure and an element of necessary discipline. They invented ways of making jam out of carefully saved sugar lumps and fruit peels. They learned how to recook their daily ration of chickpeas with a little onion and olive oil to make them palatable.

The men of the TPA executive were lucky; they were together with each other, in a civilian prison. Their one woman colleague, Reha Isvan, was in a military prison where conditions were very much worse. The men were able to read a lot. They also set up classes for some of the young prisoners, many of whom had a very narrow political culture. “They read nothing but Bobby Sands and Che Guevara,” Ali explained despairingly. Orhan Taylan, an artist who has just had a successful exhibition in Ankara, taught painting to some of these youths.

The Project of Modernization

Walking in the center of Istanbul, we pass the imposing old Lycée building where, over a century ago, the sultans of the Ottoman Empire imported French education to create an elite that could run a modernized civil service. They took modernization to mean Europeanization — rational law, modern bureaucracy and specialist training based on French positivist thinking. After World War I, Ataturk and his cohorts pushed this concept of modernization further by establishing the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The army has periodically intervened to keep the state on this course.

What was so unprecedented about the 1980 coup was the army’s vicious attack on the intellectuals, traditionally their allies in defining the character of the state and the culture. The turmoil before the coup does not explain this frenzy against the intellectuals. People are debating these questions in Istanbul today: What explains the differences between this coup and those of 1960 and 1971? Is the project of Evren and his people different from that of Ozal and the business interests? Has Turkey seen a turn away from the culture of positivist modernization? How significant are the signs of official encouragement of Islamist fundamentalism? The premise of the new repressive ideology is that severe limits to democracy are necessary to protect the process of economic modernization. Democracy and a bourgeois-liberal state do not provide sufficient means of social discipline in a society which still contains many traditional aspects.

The problem facing the ideologists of Turkey’s regime is an interesting contrast with that facing Spain 18 months ago at the time of its entry into the European Economic Community. The pro-EEC and the pro-NATO positions of the Spanish government were interpreted as a certificate of liberal maturity, a declaration that the authoritarian politics of the Franco years had been rejected. Entering the EEC was an attempt to make Spain safe from its own army. Nobody could seriously claim that Turkey had arrived at such a point, so superficial are its moves towards an authentically democratic political system, so vulnerable is it to being overturned. The victims of Turkey’s military agree that the “return to democracy” is a decorative frieze constructed on the concealed framework of a repressive constitution. Alongside the visible process of parliamentary democracy (elections, political parties, an apparently lively press) there is the small print of legal prohibition and the absence of civil rights.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul is a huge concrete plateau. Around its periphery are airline offices, banks, international hotels and prestige projects like the new opera house and art gallery. The opera house signifies not only wealth and glamour but also “Europe.” Opera is an imported high art form, as is the easel painting on display in the gallery upstairs. The whole scene is about jet-setting glitz, but it is too dirty, too much like a building site, to feel right.

This is partly because the buildings, many still under construction, have a dated brutalist style, unadorned concrete and glass, modernism at its least imaginative. In the center of the square there is a kind of bus terminal, a busy, noisy and smelly place into which buses converge in huge numbers from all points. On a slightly higher level, there is a large, dusty, bleak pedestrian concourse. Onto this modern stage, in alarming numbers but looking distinctly anachronistic, wander the shoeshine boys and the beggars. I am reminded that since the coup in 1980 real wages have fallen in Turkey by 57 percent.

Here in Taksim, a huge banner across the front of the Etap Marmara Hotel announces in both Turkish and English: “The Third Meeting of the Follow-Up Committee of the Standing Committee for Economic and Commercial Cooperation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.” To whom could this message possibly be addressed?

Against the hotel wall, a ravaged, ill-looking young boy, perhaps 12 years old, is slumped on the pavement. He is in rags and his bare feet poke through wide holes in his shoes. His hand is held out listlessly for alms. A team of three or four other boys creep up on him. They push into his hand some little pieces of newspaper torn to resemble bank notes. For a second the victim cannot believe his luck. The surprise is clearly legible on his face, but so then are the understanding and the fury which succeed it. The tricksters find it all a really great joke, and fall about laughing.

In the middle of the square, a boy water seller, perhaps 10 years old, with a plastic water container and a single cup, tries to tempt passers-by to a drink. Nobody with a modern sense of hygiene would be willing to take the risk in this sticky heat. The boy is pounced on by two municipal policemen. They roughly snatch away his water container and hurl it to the ground. One of them smashes it under his heel, over and over, grinding it into an unusable mess. He savagely wrenches out the tap and twists it to pieces. Public health regulations sensibly prohibit this kind of water selling. But it is not rational preventive health care that is acted out here. The faces of the policemen are frightening, their violence is intimidating. We all pretend to be paying attention to something else. The boy looks on, speechless with rage and fear, rigid with the effort not to react. “He'll get a beating from his father when he gets home tonight without money and no water bottle,” says a friend later when I tell the story. When the police have walked a safe distance away, the boy suddenly hurls his useless cup after them, howls his outrage, then runs away as fast as he can go.

An Authoritarian Constitution

Although there are still a sickening number of political prisoners, and although the history of torture, brutality and arbitrary cruelty has left very deep scars, the focus of immediate complaint among some opponents of the regime has shifted to the 1982 constitution. From an apartment with a stunning panoramic view of the Bosphorus, we look across to Asia. The sun goes down behind us and catches like flashes of fire in the windows of the houses on the hills we face. Soviet ships pass through beneath us, on their way to Odessa, hammers and sickles on their funnels. The apartment is furnished with cosmopolitan good taste, with what may be Parisian fabrics, Italian furniture and a stereo LP stack of impressive proportions. On the walls, varieties of modern European culture, prints and posters of Klimt and Brecht, jostle for space. By their side is the calligraphic seal of some sultan elaborated in complex arabesque.

Here I meet with some people from the medical, academic, business and professional circles. These are confident, wealthy, mildly progressive people. The businessman, who travels the world, whose children have been educated at schools in England and universities in the US, is a thoroughly modern figure. He speaks with real contempt and anger about the destruction of higher education in Turkey since the coup. “Instruction in the universities,” he says, “has been reduced to the state of high school drilling or parrot learning. All the universities are firmly in the grip of the state, via the monolithic Higher Education Institute. They have no autonomy. The many academics who lost their jobs after the coup have not been reinstated.” The concept of a modern education, of training the scientific and critical intelligence is regarded as a threat and has been destroyed.

The conversation settles on the small print of the constitution. The law of associations simply rejects the liberal idea of civil society as a space of free debate and organization. All associations must register with the police. No association is allowed to engage in political campaigns, support political parties and so on. The aim of these regulations is to prevent the formation of bodies like those that used to speak for youth or for women or for workers, as well as those such as the TPA.

A perfect illustration of how this works in practice occurs the next day. Two British doctors go off to Ankara to meet with some Turkish medical people who set up a group called Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War some months earlier. One of its aims is to inform the public about the catastrophic effects of nuclear war. They wished to be federated with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which had won the Nobel Peace Prize. It has national groups in every European country except Yugoslavia, Albania and Turkey. The next week, the ministry of the interior suspended the activities of the Turkish group. Its application was refused on the grounds that statements about the effects of nuclear war might cause panic among the public. Furthermore, the authorities argued, these functions are already fulfilled by such bodies as the civil defense section of the ministry of the interior and the Atomic Energy Commission, and this duplication could create confusion. The group is therefore banned.

The case of the Human Rights Association demonstrates the bizarre logic which is used to legitimate the exclusion from Turkish civil society of any independent political life. This association had its application turned down in January 1987 — firstly because protection of human rights is guaranteed in Article 13 of the constitution, so that a human rights association is redundant, and secondly because it is illegal for an association to pursue political aims, which a human rights association would invariably do if it were to raise issues relating to prison conditions and legal processes. (Recently the Human Rights Association did acquire legal recognition.)

One law makes it illegal to seek to change the social or economic system of the country. Obviously this provision leaves it open for almost any thought or activity to be declared illegal. The martial law prosecutors tend to argue that any protest about the law amounts to treason. A liberal amendment to the law would rule out only attempts to change the system by violence. As things stand, people are liable to be denounced as terrorists simply for arguing for reforms to the constitution.

Under the constitution, President Evren has the power to veto any proposed changes. Any which he does not veto can only be changed by referendum. A referendum on September 6, 1987, removed the ban on political activity by political leaders of the precoup years. This removed one of the most absurdly illiberal aspects of the 1982 constitution, yet in fact it only dealt with a marginal issue. I met no one who had any sympathy for the old party leaders or thought that society would gain by their return to political life. Meanwhile, the really illiberal restrictions on thought, publication and organization remain in place.

Reactionary Culture

Reha Isvan is a 60-year-old agriculturalist and educator. She and her husband (also an ex-political prisoner, and ex-mayor of Istanbul) have a successful fruit farm outside Istanbul. She talks about her own dreadful prison experience with tact and dignity. She more resembles a diplomat than a political activist. There is a well-known photograph of her in court, standing with her head held very high with patrician defiance and courage. She talks about the resurrection of Islamic culture with scorn. She explains that religious instruction has been reintroduced into the schools, and religious schools which were banned by Ataturk are again permitted. Dress on television is strictly controlled — no sleeveless dresses are allowed. One can even see, in Istanbul itself, among the rush hour commuters queuing to get the ferry back across the Bosphorus after work, a few women in veils. Prayers are recited in state buildings, and people told me that it is considered risky to be seen not joining in.

Books provide yet another example of how formal freedoms coexist with real restrictions and intimidation. For one thing, Mrs. Isvan explains, nobody but the really well-off can afford to buy books, which are very expensive. Teachers, whose standard of living has fallen drastically since 1980, can scarcely afford even to buy newspapers. In provincial towns it would be impossible for a bookseller to stock anything but the most orthodox of texts. The police would certainly take note and revenge if a bookseller stepped out of line. I read of a recent episode in which the brother of a leftwing publisher was beaten to death. It was a case of mistaken identity.

Walking down a main shopping street in the center of Istanbul, one can see posters advertising a performance of songs by Brecht at a local theater. A Voice, a book by Mrs. Isvan, is on sale in a few bookshops. It relates many of her most harrowing experiences as a political prisoner. Throughout the city the newsstands display piles of this week’s issue of Yeni Gündem (New Agenda), a fortnightly political magazine, with the cover story about the banned Turkish Communist Party. Inside, illustrating this story, we find a picture of Marx (is this the first image of Marx to be printed in Turkey since 1980?) glaring down on a startled looking Prime Minister Ozal, who is nicely placed at the bottom left. This is daring stuff.

An editor explains the real situation in terms of classic military maneuvers. Daring people constantly try to measure the limits of what the authorities will tolerate by going just a bit further. “It is like a little skirmishing party advancing to occupy an extra bit of space which the massively superior army cannot be bothered to defend. This process of slowly extending the terrain on which progressive forces can work goes on until someone decides that enough is enough and draws a new line. At this point people get hurt, disappear into prison or are sucked into some interminable and exhausting legal process.”

What the authorities de facto tolerate has slowly expanded, but those who are on the front line never forget that the laws and all the machinery of repression are still in place and can be applied at any minute. Regularly individuals are picked off. A doctor gets into trouble for complaining in print about public health policy. A journalist gets arrested and a magazine banned because it referred to the Kurds as an ethnic minority, a taboo formulation. A Turk living abroad finds that a charge has been brought against him in his absence because of something he has said on television, making it dangerous for him to return home.

Our friend the editor details some of the limits to free discussion in print. It simply is not possible to have a free and wide-ranging critical discussion of the army and its role in Turkish society. In addition to the Kurds, the Armenians are another taboo area. Turkey’s contested history cannot be properly told. This causes problems not only for the magazines and newspapers, but also for book publishers. For example, a syndicate is financing the publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Turkish. But what will they do about those maps which mark with a dotted line the boundaries between Greek and Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea? This is not permitted in Turkey; these are disputed areas. Another map labels an area in the east of the country “Kurdistan.” Nomination is a political act; the army will not tolerate the conferring of this name.

The Penguin Map of the World and Map of Europe were seized by the State Security Council of Istanbul on the grounds that they “engaged in separatist propaganda.” The Academic American Encyclopaedia was banned on the grounds that it “undermined national sentiments,” though the seizure order was later withdrawn. A recent summary of book banning in Turkey reports that 39 tons of books, periodicals and newspapers seized in Istanbul since 1980 were sent on December 18, 1986, to a paper mill to be pulped. They included 126 different books, 80 issues of 36 weekly or monthly political journals, 60 issues of 23 different magazines.

So the official story may be of a free press. But the small print, only legible by those who try to exercise that freedom, says that there are any number of exclusions, prohibited topics and images, and tough sanctions for those who step out of line.

A Diplomatic Perspective

Mahmud Dikerdem was president of the Turkish Peace Association. An ex-ambassador, career diplomat, he is a small man with confident authority whose arrival in the restaurant elicits a certain extra deference from the waiters, to whom he gives orders in a practiced way. Now over 70, he was subjected to quite awful humiliations at his trial and during his imprisonment.

At a private lunch (the public events celebrating the TPA’s anniversary having been banned) I deliver to Dr. Dikerdem a letter of support from European Nuclear Disarmament. This he adds to the wad of 60 or so other messages of support which he proudly produces from his jacket pocket. On the restaurant wall is a photo gallery of Turkish political and cultural celebrities, including the ambassador himself and, to my amazement, the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. For Dr. Dikerdem, the central issue of Turkish foreign policy at this time is the application to join the EEC. He appeals to the European nations to recognize that Turkey, in spite of some appearances, is not a democracy. Turkey’s constitution withholds essential democratic rights from individuals and associations. He writes in a recent article,

Even more serious is the fact that undemocratic laws cannot easily be changed, not only because of procedural obstacles but also because there is no consensus in favor of a significant change among the political parties represented in the National Assembly. To be more specific, I would say that the rightwing in Turkey, which has obtained some 70 percent of the vote in almost all general elections, nowadays takes “the democratization of public life” to mean only the repeal of the prohibitions on pre-coup politicians, and they stop short of any promise to legalize the left.

The Trial Goes On

On April 28, just a few days short of five years after the original arrests, the TPA trials reached another turning point: the Second Military Court of Istanbul announced the results of its deliberations. The case against the TPA executive members had been heard for a third time. This trial has now been amalgamated with that known as TPA II, the trial of TPA members.

The court ordered that the Turkish Peace Association be disbanded and that all its assets and publications be seized and confiscated. The verdicts were as follows.

Mahmud Dikerdem and Reha Isvan were each found guilty of belonging to an illegal organization and were sentenced to four years and two months each. Other members of the executive, including the president of the Medical Association Dr. Atabek, the painter Orhan Taylan, professor Metin Ozek, doctor and psychiatrist, and Aykut Goker, the president of the Engineers Trade Union, were each sentenced to 18 months for “founding within the country an organization which has its roots abroad, without the permission of the government; organizing activities outside of the stated aims of the association; engaging in international activities in violation of the law of association.”

Ali Taygun and three others are also defendants in another case, in which they and others are charged with being members of the banned Turkish Communist Party. The TPA case against them is left outstanding, awaiting the verdict of that trial. The sentences against a further 18 defendants were dropped on the grounds that they have already served longer periods on remand than the sentences. The tribunal acquitted 31 defendants. Two defendants who have not yet been in prison were found guilty and sentenced to six months.

Twelve members of the TPA Executive will appeal their sentences and the order disbanding the TPA. The trial now goes into its sixth year.

How to cite this article:

John Mepham "Turkey: Reading the Small Print," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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