In Turkey, the first conscientious objectors publicly declared their objections in the early 1990s and stood up against war, the military and compulsory service. At first there were only a few who decided to go public, like Vedat Zencir, Tayfun Gönül or Osman Murat Ülke. In the meantime, far more than 1,000 conscripts have declared their conscientious objections. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands have evaded military service, using other ways or hiding. Faced with prosecution, several hundred have sought asylum abroad.
This booklet will be published 30 years after the first public declarations of conscientious objection. It takes stock, describes the solidarity work for the conscientious objection movement from abroad and gives a voice to conscientious objectors, some of whom were active in Turkey for years and have now gone into exile, with an uncertain outcome.
At the same time the booklet is going to be published on May 15, 2021, the International Day of Conscientious Objection. Many other events, videos and actions will make the voice of conscientious objectors from Turkey heard around the world. Find out more at https:// de.Connection-eV.org/CODay2021 and www.wri-irg.org/en/CODay2021.
Failure in legislation of the right to conscientious objection
By now Turkey is the only member state in the Council of Europe that has not recognised the right to conscientious objection to military service. Conscientious objectors are forced by many different sanctions to undergo military service. As a result of these sanctions, objectors are facing continuous arrest warrants; a life-long cycle of prosecutions and imprisonment, and a situation of “civil death” which excludes them from social, cultural and economic life.
Legislative steps were taken on compulsory military service and also on the length of military service. A new recruitment law reduced military service in 2019 to six months. Nevertheless, the submitted draft of a law on conscientious objection prepared by the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) a few years ago was rejected by the votes of the government party and other parties. Proposals by the HDP were also rejected in the legislative process for the new law in 2019. As a result, there is nothing in it about the right to conscientious objection.
There is a special feature in Turkey: the substitute payment for shortening military service for conscripts. According to Article 9 of the Recruitment Law, military service may be reduced to one month subject to payment of an amount equivalent to about €5,000. However, since this still involves military training, the substitute payment is not an option for conscientious objectors.
Objectors are still criminalised as draft evaders. An arrest warrant, continuously in effect, is issued and due to this, objectors might get detained in any ID checks by police/gendarmes. After first detainment objectors are given an administrative fine. At the same time, they receive a new call-up and are thus still held liable to military service. Once the administrative fine has become effective, every new detainment entails a new Article 63 Military Criminal Code procedure, with sentences from 2 months to 3 years or issuance of a fine (which is actually more common).
Furthermore, facing a vicious circle of arrest, criminal proceedings and re-enlistment combined with a lifelong conscription exposes them to “civilian death”, a term coined by the European Court of Human Rights in Ülke v. Turkey (application no. 39437/98).
Conscientious objectors cannot work in the public or private sector, as it is considered a criminal offence to employ conscientious military objectors. Conscientious objectors are thus forced to remain unemployed or to work illegally in precarious jobs. Conscientious objectors also have no right to vote or stand for election. Since any arrest will result in further prosecution, conscientious objectors must avoid activities in the social, economic, legal and cultural spheres: getting passports, driving licences, staying in hotels, travelling, using public transport, visiting government offices and much more. They are thus forced into an underground way of life. As there have not been any changes despite the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, most recently in June 2020 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which supervises the implementation of the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, took a position. We document the decision on page 6.
This situation also applies to conscripts who have refused to join the army but have not declared their conscientious objections yet.
Committee of Ministers
To the situation of conscientious objectors in Turkey
The Deputies (of Ministers’) 1. recalled that these cases concern the applicants’ repetitive prosecutions and convictions for refusing to carry out compulsory military service as pacifists and conscientious objectors, as a result of which they are compelled to lead clandestine lives amounting to “civil death”, and the absence of a procedure to establish their status as conscientious objectors;
As regards individual measures
2. noted that the applicants Mehmet Tarhan, Caglar Buldu, Enver Aydemir, Feti Demirtas, Nevzat Umdu, Barış Görmez and Halil Savda are no longer under the obligation to perform military service;
3. expressed deep concern that Osman Murat Ülke, Yunus Erçep and Ersin Ölgün are still considered draft evaders and continue to face a situation of “civil death” and strongly urged the authorities to take all necessary measures without further delay to ensure that these three applicants are no longer prosecuted or convicted for refusing to carry out military service;
4. invited the authorities to clarify by 1 September 2020, and if needed to take the necessary steps to make sure, that all the consequences of the violations have been remedied for all nine applicants, namely reimbursement of administrative fines, lifting of arrest warrants for previous sentences, erasure of criminal records, and finally that none of the applicants are still under the risk of prosecution and imprisonment for refusing to pay the administrative fines issued in relation to their claims to conscientious objection status;
5. further invited the authorities to provide information on the outcome of the criminal proceedings against Mehmet Tarhan and on the criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of ill-treatment in the Enver Aydemir case;
As regards general measures
6. regretted that no progress has been achieved despite the authorities’ undertaking, during the Committee’s previous examinations, to move forward with legislative amendments; invited therefore the authorities to provide an action plan with concrete proposals for measures to address the Court’s findings in this group of cases before 21 June 2021;
7. further invited the authorities to provide statistical information on the number of conscientious objectors in Turkey and on administrative fines, prosecutions and convictions delivered in this connection since the Ülke judgment became final in 2006.
Committee of Ministers: H46-40 Ülke group v. Turkey (Application no 39437/98), 13377th meeting, 4. Juni 2020, CM/Del/Dec(2020)1377/H46-40. Source: https://search.coe.int/cm/Pages/result_details. aspx?ObjectId=09000016809e8f6e
In addition, public statements, e.g. at press conferences, actions or even in social media can be prosecuted. According to Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code, “alienating people from the army” is punishable. Prosecution for “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” based on Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law is also possible. In recent years both threats of punishment have been used against conscientious objectors and activists for peace and human rights.
The road to exile
The situation in Turkey is leading to more and more conscientious objectors seeking protection and asylum in other European countries. In Europe, however, they experience that persecution of conscientious objection is rarely seen as a reason to be recognized as a refugee. Usually, persecution is seen as a legitimate measure in Turkey to enforce conscription. Because of that they are threatened with deportation to the warlords in Turkey, which is an unbearable situation. The limits and possibilities of the asylum procedure are explained in the article on Conscientious Objection and Asylum.
A main focus of this booklet is on the reports of conscientious objectors who have gone into exile. They portray the everyday reality of militarism in Turkey. Beran Mehmet İşçi, Ercan Aktaş, Halil Savda, Mertcan Güler and Onur Erden make clear how important their decisions against war and violence are to them and what repressions they were consequently subjected to. Despite all the imprisonment, torture and repression they have suffered, the reports radiate something positive, pleading for a world without war, oppression, military and violence.
Many thanks to Tuğce Oklay, René Burget, Hans Gehring, Mertcan Güler, Thomas Stiefel, Suzanne Glaner, Osman Murat Ülke and Cemal Sıncı for the help and translation to made this publication possible!
Report in Progress
The expert report “Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Turkey” will soon be published by the Association for Conscientious Objection in cooperation with other organisations. It can be downloaded from the Connection e.V. website from June 15, 2021. Download