The release of Mehmet Tarhan: Good news for COs in Turkey?

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Good news for a change from Turkey: on 9 March, Turkish gay conscientious objector Mehmet Tarhan was unexpectedly released from military prison in Sivas, following an order by the Military Court of Appeal in Ankara. The reasons are still not known, but one of the reasons given is that even if finally sentenced, Mehmet Tarhan would unlikely need to serve more time in prison than he already had (he was arrested on 6 April 2005, and has spent almost one year in prison). Mehmet Tarhan had been sentenced to 4 years imprisonment by a military court in Sivas on 15 December 2005, and it seems the Appeal Court expected a final sentence to be lower (in general, only 1/3 of a prison sentence is served in Turkey).

The release of Mehmet Tarhan has to be seen in a wider context -- and then the good news doesn't look that good any more. The following is a rough sketch of recent developments:

On 24 January 2006, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg finally ruled in the case of conscientious objector Osman Murat Ülke: The court decided that “the numerous criminal prosecutions against the applicant, the cumulative effects of the criminal convictions which resulted from them and the constant alternation between prosecutions and terms of imprisonment, together with the possibility that he would be liable to prosecution for the rest of his life, had been disproportionate to the aim of ensuring that he did his military service. They were more calculated to repressing the applicant’s intellectual personality, inspiring in him feelings of fear, anguish and vulnerability capable of humiliating and debasing him and breaking his resistance and will. The clandestine life amounting almost to “civil death” which the applicant had been compelled to adopt was incompatible with the punishment regime of a democratic society.

This judgement provoked a debate within Turkey on the right to conscientious objection never seen before. Most mainstream newspapers interpreted the judgement in a way that now Turkey is required to finally recognise the right to conscientious objection.

In March, a second judgement of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of members of the İzmir Savaş Karşıtları Derneği (Izmir War Resisters Association), who had been fined for travelling abroad without asking for permission from the Ministry of the Interior.

These developments -- together with the international campaign in support of Mehmet Tarhan -- increased the pressure on the Turkish government, especially as Turkey is facing very tough negotiations with the European Commission on entering the European Union. The renewed attention for the issue of conscientious objection was not welcome -- and the easiest way to reduce pressure was to release the only conscientious objector in prison -- Mehmet Tarhan.

However, Mehmet Tarhan's release does not mean an end to his suffering, or to his legal case. Mehmet Tarhan was ordered to report to his military unit after his release -- an order which he ignored, and was expected to ignore. He therefore is now considered a deserter and could be re-arrested at any time, although this is presently unlikely. He joins Osman Murat Ülke in what the European Court for Human Rights called “a clandestine life amounting almost to 'civil death'.” There are about declared 80 conscientious objectors living a similar life.

Since the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, harassment of Osman Murat Ülke parents has been increasing. While in the past this harassment existed mainly in the form of yearly or twice-yearly visits of the police to ask about the whereabouts of Osman (which are perfectly known to the police), there were increased and unknown men wandering around the property of Osman's parents -- a property which is in a remote area of a Turkish island.

The Turkish government seems to be preparing new sanctions for conscientious objection. The New Anatolian reported on 15 March that “Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said yesterday that his ministry is working on a bill that will stipulate sanctions for conscientious objectors. ... Asked whether the sanction would mean a judicial sentence, he replied that it may involve paying a fine as an alternative.” In doing so the Turkish government picks out another part of the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, namely that “there was no specific provision in Turkish law governing penalties for those who refused to wear uniform on conscientious or religious grounds.

While the release of Mehmet Tarhan is a reason to celebrate, it doesn't look that good in the end. There is no reason to reduce our efforts in supporting Turkish conscientious objectors.

Published in Peace News No 2472, April 2006