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 matter that the parliament is not fully representative. New parties continue to form in anticipation of the next election, some closely aligned to the politicians who were prominent before the coup and are now supposedly banned from current political activity. A recent poll in Turkey indicated that if an election were held today the most votes would go to a left-of-center opposition party, the Social Democratic People’s party, which has put heavy emphasis on human-rights issues.

Prime Minister Ozal, an economic reformer who initially showed little interest in human-rights problems, is now being forced to respond to the opposition’s questions about torture and political imprisonment. Some doubt whether he is sincere. Others are skeptical about the opposition’s motives, suggesting that it is using human-rights issues opportunistically against the prime minister. But whatever the impetus, human rights have clearly become the main show at the parliament.

Staying apart from party politics, President Kenan Evren, the former leader of the military junta who was elected civilian president for a seven-year term in 1982 as part of a constitutional referendum, appeals directly to the crowd. He was given credit for having saved Turkey from the wild anarchy of the 1970s. Recently his popularity has seemed to be slipping, and there are signs that he is also losing his behind-the-scenes backers—the generals, who are now eager to remain aloof from civilian politics.

Turkish leaders are quick to point out that the Turkish military establishment bears no resemblance to the corrupt military juntas that carry out repression in other parts of the world. The Army leaders are committed to the traditions of Atatürk, who established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and set its sights firmly westward. The Army is capable of great brutality, but it has long included some of the best educated and most Westernized elements of Turkish society. On three occasions since 1960, at approximately ten-year intervals, the Army stepped in to set Turkish society “back on course” and then withdrew, relinquishing control to a civilian government.


The most recent occasion, however, was exceptional. The turmoil of the late 1970s was one of the blackest periods in modern Turkish history; more than five thousand assassinations by right-wing and left-wing groups took place between 1975 and 1980. The takeover in 1980 was more ruthless and longer lasting than any in the past. This time the military, under Evren’s leadership, staged a carefully controlled election, trying to create a “guided democracy” from above. “They simply couldn’t do it,” a Turkish intellectual told me. “They couldn’t create the type of society they wanted. Their system collapsed under pressure from the people.” In the election of 1983, Ozal won against the candidate openly backed by Evren.

If the parliament has become a stage where human-rights issues are discussed, the performers so far appear merely to be playacting. The real human-rights drama, virtually unchanged, is being enacted far from the public eye. Thousands of political prisoners, some broken, some rebellious, are hidden away in military prisons, many of them still awaiting the outcome of trials that have dragged on for years. Most of these prisoners are young people, often students, who were arrested in 1980 or 1981 and charged with some form of terrorist activity. Many of them were badly tortured when they were arrested, and they continue to be treated harshly in prison. Some will eventually be acquitted through drawn-out appeals in the courts, and will leave prison with bitter memories of torture and of lost youth. Others face the prospect of long prison terms or even the death penalty.

A small number of courageous lawyers have assumed the responsibility of defending political prisoners. It has not been easy for them. Not only are they often denied permission to see their clients, but many of them have been arrested themselves, interrogated and threatened. A lawyer described to me how his clients were ordered from the court and then beaten by soldiers in front of seven judges. When the lawyer shouted, “This is inhuman,” he was told to shut up or he would be beaten, too.

A contest of will has developed in some of the military prisons between the soldiers and groups of young prisoners who refuse to submit to discipline. They will not march in formation, or address their guards as “my commander,” or sing the compulsory martial songs. They refuse to wear prison uniforms because they are political prisoners and because, in some cases, they have not yet even been found guilty.

The guards, determined to break their spirit, continue to impose indignities on them. Their belongings are arbitrarily searched and destroyed. They are denied outdoor exercise periods. On visiting days, or before trips to the prison hospital or the courtroom, prisoners are stripped naked and subjected to a crude and humiliating body search. Prisoners who resist are further punished.

Prison visits are harrowing. The prisoners face their relatives and lawyers from behind two thicknesses of glass partition. Conversations are conducted by telephone, while the guards listen in, ready to cut off the talk at any moment or, still worse, to record it to be used as evidence against the prisoner. For these reasons, many prisoners refuse to meet with their families. I met mothers who said they had not seen their imprisoned children for three years or more.

What will happen to these young people who are becoming more rebellious and embittered with each passing year? Estimates of their numbers vary, but the Turkish government acknowledges some ten thousand, a number that includes those sentenced for crimes of thought as well as for crimes of violence. In prison, for example, are members of the Turkish Peace Association, including prominent lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, who have been charged and sentenced for their beliefs and not for any violent acts. The Turkish constitution does not distinguish between the two categories of crime. It stipulates that no political prisoners can be given amnesty. Yet nearly everyone agrees that an amnesty is sorely needed. Prime Minister Ozal, in an effort to circumvent the constitutional prohibition, has suggested a one-time parole for good behavior. There have been other suggestions as well, but President Evren has so far opposed all of them.

The fate of this youthful, politicized prison population, a major problem in Turkey, is overshadowed only by the problem of torture. Despite all the protests to the contrary, it has not yet been brought under control. Torture was practiced in Turkey before 1980 as well, but it became more widespread and routine after the 1980 coup when tens of thousands of people were arrested. If there is less torture in Turkey today, it is mainly because there are fewer arrests, since torture usually takes place immediately after arrest, during police detention. The detention period, once as long as ninety days, has now been reduced to somewhere between forty-eight hours and fifteen days, still much too long to be reassuring. Some Turkish authorities deny that suspects are kept incommunicado during this period, but the torture victims and the lawyers I met insist that this is invariably the practice.


Turkish authorities are very sensitive to charges of torture. They are quick to point out that torture is outlawed in Turkey and that torturers are being punished, as in fact some have been. Most important, and most questionable, is their assertion that the practice of torture has ended, except for a few isolated cases of police brutality. The chief of police, Mr. Arikan Beduk, suggested to me that torture allegations are part of an international conspiracy aimed at “making bad publicity” for Turkey.

Officials in the US embassy take a different approach. They admit that torture continues, but believe that it is not widespread. They point out that “Turkey is basically a violent society” and that Turks are therefore “used to torture.” This was certainly not the impression I received from numerous interviews with torture victims and their relatives.

Less than twenty-four hours after I arrived in Turkey I was having tea with a group of women in the small, charming lobby of a recently redecorated turn-of-the-century hotel. One of the women (I shall call her Nurhan) is twenty-nine, with a long, dark ponytail, huge brown eyes, and a delicate skin that flushed frequently as she told me how she was tortured on two occasions, most recently only six months before, in May of 1985. During her first arrest in 1981, which led to two years of imprisonment, Nurhan and her husband were detained for seventy-two days and tortured in front of their then two-year-old child, who was later put in an orphanage and now needs psychiatric help. The techniques were the “standard” ones: they were handcuffed, suspended from the wall, and received electric shocks “all over”; the soles of their feet were beaten mercilessly (a technique known as falaka). Nurhan’s feet turned black and swelled to the point of bursting; she began bleeding from her mouth and lost all feeling in her shoulders. She was taken to a hospital where the medical staff filed a report on her condition, but later, when she tried to bring charges, the report had disappeared. When Nurhan was tortured again in 1985, the police were careful not to leave traces. She was recently threatened in the district police station and told to drop her complaint of torture. “Don’t make more trouble for yourself,” they told her. “Go home and take care of your daughter.”

Nurhan’s is only one of many accounts I heard confirming that torture continued in 1985, not just sporadically or in remote places, but in the heart of Istanbul and Ankara. I was able to find out the exact location of the main torture centers in both cities. Surely this information is available to the authorities as well. If they were determined to do so, they could bring such centers under strict control and eliminate the barbaric practices that go on there.

Turkish authorities have taken steps to punish torturers, but the sentences are usually relatively light and the number of convicted torturers (the highest of several official figures is 110) is small compared to the many thousands of victims. The current procedures for bringing charges against torturers do not take into account the fact that victims may be ashamed, disoriented, or fearful of making trouble, or that they may find torture difficult to prove, months or years after the incident. Many of the cases that have been prosecuted are those in which the “evidence” did not disappear because the victim died under torture. The desire to cover up such evidence may explain the recent rash of “suicides” at police stations. I am still waiting for a reply from Prime Minister Ozal to my request to him for information about five people who reportedly “fell” to their deaths from the same window on the sixth floor of the Ankara Police Station during a three-month period in 1985.

“We are not lying, we do not practice torture,” I was told by the chief of police. A few minutes after hearing this, I entered the small office of Mr. Cuneyt Canver, an outspoken member of the Social Democratic People’s party in parliament. On his desk was a small machine with a crank, made in the US for use as a desert telephone. It had been used instead as an electric shock machine by the Turkish police. “It’s a little thing,” Mr. Canver commented, “but with this you will confess to anything, even murder.”

That Mr. Canver was later able to display the machine in parliament indicates a new willingness in Turkey to confront the problem of torture. A photograph of Mr. Canver and the machine also appeared in the Turkish press, another sign of progress. There have been many such surprising developments. A book was published in Turkey last fall giving details of the practice of torture. In December a group of intellectuals held a public symposium on human-rights violations in Turkey. Four hundred people came and the police did not interfere.

Yet fear has not disappeared in Turkey, nor have the results of repression under martial law. Many of the institutions that made for pluralism in Turkey before the coup no longer exist. The university system and the trade unions have been brought under centralized control; many professors and union leaders have either been fired or imprisoned or are facing trial. Professional and other organizations are precluded by the constitution from engaging in political activity, and the definition of “political activity” is very broad. Charges were recently brought against the Turkish Medical Association, for example, because it came out against capital punishment.

Turkey has a restrictive constitution, a harsh penal code, a cumbersome court system, and much repressive legislation. Although many of these laws are now being disregarded, at least some of the time, there are no guarantees that current practices will continue. Nevertheless, there are courageous people in Turkey who are willing to take chances, and each time they do so the momentum for freedom becomes stronger. As former prime minister Bülent Ecevit said to me, “The difference between de jure and de facto continues to grow.”

A dramatic recent example involves Mr. Ecevit himself, as well as another former prime minister, Süleyman Demirel. Both are restricted by law from any political activity or public statements, yet they have been speaking out in recent months and their remarks are being published in the press. Prime Minister Ozal acknowledged that although the two men “should not be involved,” they are making speeches, traveling throughout Turkey, criticizing the budget, and indeed criticizing him. “I find it better to proceed on this basis,” he told me, somewhat proudly. He also pointed out that in the March 1984 municipal elections he “disregarded the law” by allowing parties that reflect the positions of the banned political tendencies to participate. In Turkey today, even the prime minister boasts of disregarding the law.

Turkey is the third largest recipient of US aid and a major NATO outpost. The US government, seeking stability in Turkey, strongly supported the 1980 military takeover and the martial law regime, and now backs the government of Prime Minister Ozal. A visitor quickly has cause to worry about the US image there. Not one of the dozens of people I talked to, except for the prime minister, had anything favorable to say about the policies of the United States. Victims of human-rights abuses hold the US government responsible for their sufferings; they are convinced that the US is in a position to stop torture if it would only take a strong stand. The opposition leaders in the parliament are also angry with the United States. Mr. Husamettin Cindoruk, the chairman of the conservative Correct Way party, who describes himself as pro-American, says that the Reagan administration is not “truly democratic.” He claims that “the US administration is as responsible as the military for the suspension of human rights in Turkey.” Mr. Aydin Gurkan, chairman of the Social Democratic People’s party, the left-of-center party currently favored to win in a new election, criticized the Reagan administration for its unqualified support of Prime Minister Ozal. “Everyone knows about the conditions in the prisons and about torture, but no one does anything about it,” he said. “Reagan and Ozal come together very often. Why don’t they solve this problem?” If the United States is committed to establishing a democratic process in Turkey, is it appropriate or wise for it to be estranging the politicians who seem likely to be its future leaders and to give all its support to one political party and its leader?

More than five years since the 1980 military takeover, Turkey seems at the threshold of a new phase of its political history. It is not the democracy that some suggest it has become—nor will it be so long as people are imprisoned for their views or tortured in police stations and there are restrictions on universities, unions, and civil associations of all kinds. It will not be a democracy until there are legal safeguards for the civil liberties that are beginning to be exercised there. And yet I found good reason to be hopeful. The sensitivity of the authorities to international criticism and their recognition of the need for improvements seem to me indisputable. So is the vitality of many of the political leaders and potential leaders in Turkey today. Turkish society is in the midst of dynamic changes, and the forces favoring freedom, democracy, and human rights are growing stronger.

This Issue

February 27, 1986