Turkey: conscientious objector withdraws his objection

İsmail Saygıİsmail Saygı

Turkish conscientious objector İsmail Saygı, who had been arrested on 16 March 2008 in İstanbul, withdrew his declaration as conscientious objector while in military prison. İsmail Saygı had been taken into custody on his way home during an ID check. He was taken to the military court, arressted and sent to Maltepe Military Prison where he was severly beaten by other soldiers present and was subject to maltreatment during his whole stay there. On 26 March he was sent to Kars and placed into Sarikamis

Military Prison, which is notorious for its maltreatment.

İsmail Saygı declared his conscientious objection on 15 November 2006, after having served seven months of military service while on vacation. Saygi, who did not repeat his declaration in court in İstanbul, found a chance to see his lawyer in Kars. He then told him that he is being charged with desertion and after serving the resulting sentence he will serve the remainder of his military service. He will be taken to Erzurum Military hospital to be treated for the severely damaged nose as a  result of the beating in Maltepe (İstanbul).

Saygi's Turkish solidarity group declared following the news: "To top the social and psychological pressures [imminent in Turkish society] Ismail Saygi has been subjected to physical violence and force. For an objector who has decided to make his declaration in the 7th month of his military service and left the military headquarters never to return to change his stand after a period of detention proves the existence of seriously tough conditions of pressure."

War Resisters' International is very concerned about these developments. The fact that a conscientious objector saw for himself no other way out than to withdraw his conscientious objection is very worrying, especially as Ismail Saygi clearly showed sign of maltreatment, and had to be taken to hospital. It had happened before that prison authorities did not intervene when other prisoners abused an imprisoned conscientious objector (see the case of Mehmet Tarhan). While Ismail Saygi presently does not wish to consider himself a conscientious objector, and therefore War Resisters' International does not think it is appropriate to continue sending protest letters on his behalf (which would only complicate the situation), War Resisters' International thinks that in general conditions in military prisons in Turkey need more attention. It cannot be that the military authorities not only turn a blind eye on the abuse of prisoners by other prisoners, but even actively use this abuse to discipline political prisoners such as conscientious objectors.

During a solidarity action for Ismail Saygi, conscientious objector Halil Savda was again arrested. Halil Savda has a long history in and out of prison, and will now need to serve an outstanding sentence of 15.5 months imprisonment. Additionally, he faces new charges of desertion.

In a different case, a recent judgement of the European Court of Human Rights highlighed the absurdity of the Turkish conscription system. In the case of Taştan v. Turkey, the Court ruled on 4 March 2008 that Turkey had violated Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) taken in conjunction with Article 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights because the applicant was forced to do military service at the age of 71 (!). The press release of the Court summarises the case:

"Mr Taştan stated that he had been a shepherd since his childhood and that he worked for local villagers in exchange for clothes, food and a roof over his head in winter. He maintained that his wife died in childbirth and that he stopped working to look after their son. As a result, the villagers – annoyed that he wasn’t working for them anymore – denounced him as a deserter. He also claimed to be illiterate and to speak only Kurdish.

On 15 February 2000 the applicant was called up to do military service and taken by gendarmes to the military recruitment office of Şanlıurfa. He was certified medically fit to perform military service and transferred to Erzincan (Turkey), where he underwent military training for recruits for one month. He was forced to take part in the same activities and physical exercises as 20-year-old recruits.

Mr Taştan alleged that he was subjected to degrading treatment during his training, such as being offered cigarettes by his hierarchical superiors in exchange for posing with them for a photo, and had been the target of various jokes. As he had no teeth, he had had problems eating at army barracks; he had also suffered from heart and lung problems on account of temperatures dropping to as low as minus 30oC. Lastly, he alleged that he had had no means of communicating with his son throughout the entire period of his military service.

After his military training the applicant was transferred to the 10th infantry brigade in Erciş (Van), where his state of health deteriorated. He was examined by a doctor on two occasions and then admitted to Van Military Hospital, before being transferred to Diyarbakır Military Hospital (Turkey). On 26 April 2000 he finally obtained a certificate exempting him from military service on grounds of heart failure and old age.

The Turkish Government maintained that, in accordance with the practice followed in similar cases, the applicant’s personal records relating to his military service had been destroyed."

"The Court found that calling the applicant up to do military service and keeping him there, making him take part in training reserved for much younger recruits then himself, had been a particularly distressing experience and had affected his dignity. It had caused him suffering in excess of that which would be involved for any man in being obliged to perform military service and had, in itself, amounted to degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3."

Sources: co-alert, 27 March 2008, co-alert, 28 March 2008, Email on wri-internal, 2 April 2008, European Court of Human Rights: Press release issued by the Registrar, 4 March 2008