The interview of Hakan Ataman, SG of the Human Rights Agenda Association with Osman Murat Ülke via e-mail on 26.07.2007
H.A: Dear Ossi (as we call Osman Murat Ülke), you spent almost 2 years in prison for refusing military service and now the prosecutor’s office in Eskişehir called you on 14 June 2007 to defend yourself on a prison term of 17.5 months. How do you evaluate the call (order)?
O: I was not called to defend myself. I was called to serve a sentence of 17 months and 15 days imprisonment relating to two verdicts from the trials until 1999. This situation in itself is weird, because I almost served all of these sentences. On 9 March 1999, the day of my release, we reckoned that there were three or nine days that I had not served - maybe less or none at all. But the prosecutor first issues an order and intends to make the exact count later.
In the end all of this is unimportant, because after the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the promises the Turkish authorities made to the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe, I should not serve 3 to 7 days, not even one single day. What has to be done is to stop the violation on a general and individual level. Even if this does not lead to imprisonment, the violation, in the words of the court the "civil death", continues in an aggravated form day by day.
Therefore, we demand that on the individual level the procedures are stopped and further that my obligation to do military service is ended and that I am legalized in every respect.
HA: Do you think that a connection can be detected between the fast rise of militarism in Turkey lately and the call you received despite the judgment of the ECHR and the suggestions of the Committee of Ministers? What is your opinion on this?
O: There is no direct hint that the prosecutor’s office in Eskişehir acted on direct intervention of the General Staff. But even if the situation can be explained with a Kafkaesque irony of bureaucratic mechanisms and the lack of communication within the State, we cannot ignore the role of militarism in this equation. Did we not live under the custodianship of the military, no military official would have repudiated the Ministry of Defence that announced that a law on conscientious objection would be passed right after the judgment of the ECHR and the necessary steps would have been taken by now.
HA: The notion of conscientious objection is not limited to the judgment of the ECHR. It is a basic human right with an intense ethical and political background. This background is too broad and rooted to be reflected in courts’ decisions. Therefore, we speak not only about abiding to courts’ decisions, but of a much wider problem. What can you say about this?
O: Certainly. Concerning the judgment of the ECHR and the question to put the right to conscientious objection into the context of universal law, we can say that detecting the "disparity of the sentence and its consequences" the Court postponed a decision concerning the essence of the problem.
The right to conscientious objection is taken as a standard among the individual rights in countries where the relationship between State and individual is determined in a liberal framework. But in countries where the State believes to have the right to form the citizens ideologically and to have power on their bodies and will, conscientious objection becomes a threat to undermine the whole socio-political framework. If the individual insists on having the first say on his body and will, in short his or her life, this is an aspect that starting from each questioning individual relates to the whole social construct and, therefore, exceeds the individual.
If the State responds to such a pressure with an even more rigorous attitude and insists on authoritarian norms, the area of questioning expands and the loss of legitimation intensifies. This is the general dilemma of authoritarianism.
Conscientious objectors in Turkey have always, that is for 17 years now, accepted conscientious objection as a concrete indicator of criticism towards militarism. Like in the example of Ghandi, that many people do not take serious or worth to be studied, this attitude of civil disobedience goes beyond individual losses and punishment and leads to discussions of the negative aspects of society and structural problems based on libertarian and ethical arguments. Just to name some of the headings: occupation of politics by the military; the continuing war; the militarist manipulation in education; the distorted historiography built on taboos; the militarized construction of gender identities and the related role divisions...
You may say that I am exaggerating, but I have seen conscientious objection as a litmus paper among all those who have said something on the subject in Turkey so far, clearly marking those who are in favour of a free and humane structure of society and those who promote an abstract raison d’etat.
HA: Even though there are not too many at risk of being imprisoned for being conscientious objectors in recent years, there has been an increase in imprisonments. Halil Savda was arrested and just recently released. In addition, during the latest arrests of Halil Savda and Mehmet Tarhan torture and ill-treatment occurred. Taking the subject as a whole, it seems that what is done to the conscientious objectors does not only aim at them but is planned in order to traumatize the whole society. That is, the society is given a message. What do you think about this?
O: This has always been the common aim of torture, whatever the reason for it may be. The State announces the impossibility of being questioned with violence and hopes to take all dynamics and minds in society as hostage. Concerning the example of conscientious objection, the completely indefinite future of conscientious objectors must be mentioned here. The individual burden is much heavier and therefore reservations in the face of State power dominate the majority. But disquieters, who do not sacrifice the voice of conscience to concerns of security have always existed and the effects have been bigger than the persons. This is one of the dark spots that authoritarianism cannot take under control.
HA: The last question: What can organizations of civil society do for recognition of conscientious objection or what would you suggest?
O: Speaking for Turkey, first of all, they can start to do something. There are some exceptions, but so far the activities are far from being sufficient.
At least since the judgment of the ECHR the question marks in many people’s mind as to the legitimation of conscientious objection have been lifted. I wish that our struggle on this soil over the last 17 years could have had such an effect by itself.
This being so, many NGOs have not taken the problem as an issue for themselves or are unconsciously calculating the risks and prefer to wait and not to prioritize the matter. Any NGO that is truly concerned about the custodianship of the military and/or individual liberties should get in touch with conscientious objectors and should try to understand the history and basics of the problem in order to draw its own conclusions.
There should be seminars and internal education not only on conscientious objection, but also on contents, dimensions and meaning of antimilitarism in Turkey.
Abroad a huge amount of literature was developed on the subject. This has to be studied.
The individual objectors need legal and political support. I’m not saying that all NGOs have to appoint a lawyer immediately, but sending observers to the trials and reflecting on what can be done afterwards would be a beginning.
The government must be put under pressure to implement indisputable legal documents. Open letters can be written and interviews can be given to the press.
Platforms that were established on the war in Iraq or other specific subjects should be extended to cover conscientious objection.
Of course, this list can be extended.