A New Turn in Turkey

Ozal Turgut
Ozal Turgut; drawing by David Levine

The atmosphere in Turkey today is very different from what it was when I was there two and a half years ago. There is a new, almost inexplicable, sense of freedom in the country, a freedom that seems to exist in spite of continuing repression. There are still terrible problems—political prisoners, torture, and repressive legislation, but people are speaking openly about them now, seeking ways to correct them, and the press seems to have shed its inhibitions. In Istanbul and Ankara last December almost everyone I talked to agreed that things are better, that the climate, at the very least, had improved.

In 1983, when I began planning the first Helsinki Watch human-rights mission to Turkey, both the Turkish government and the US State Department did virtually everything they could to discourage me. I was advised to postpone my trip until after the Turkish parliamentary elections. Everyone would be too busy to see me, and I was told my visit could be a “disadvantage to US foreign-policy interests.” What I found in Turkey in 1983 was appalling—tens of thousands of political prisoners jailed since the 1980 military coup, many still awaiting trial; routine torture; the destruction or tight control of practically all active civilian institutions including the universities, the unions, and the press; and a pervasive fear among Turkish citizens. The US embassy strongly defended the actions of the military leadership.

When I wrote about these matters after my return, I became the target of angry attacks from both Turkish and US officials. Yet some two years later, last December, I found all doors were open to me. In meetings that were reported daily in the Turkish press, I discussed human-rights abuses with the prime minister, the chief of police, the chairmen of all the major political parties in Turkey, and well over one hundred other people, both government officials and private citizens. The US ambassador to Turkey could not have been more cooperative—he invited Turkish officials to a special lunch for me in Ankara at which he gave the Helsinki Watch mission strong endorsement.

Some people told me that the recent changes in Turkey are the result both of international pressure from human-rights groups and some Western European governments, and of the recent lifting of martial law in all but nine of Turkey’s sixty-seven provinces. Others trace the change back to the November 1983 parliamentary elections, the first to be held after the military takeover in 1980. Although those elections were tightly controlled (only three of the fifteen parties that sought to participate were allowed to compete), they nevertheless resulted in an upset victory for Prime Minister Turgut Ozal’s Motherland party, the only party that did not have the blessings of the military.

That there is now a functioning parliament in Turkey, with opposition parties competing for votes, has clearly been a major force in changing the political atmosphere. No…

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