By Alina Lehtinen
“Every Turkish man is born a soldier,” a famous Turkish phrase states. Since the founding of the Turkish state in 1923, the military has been one of the most powerful institutions in the country.
This causes problems for those who do not believe in military service.
“The army set up the state. Turkey is a military nation,” said Mehmet Tarhan, a 33-year-old conscientious objector.
Currently, Turkey does not allow conscientious objection. The objectors are charged with transgressing Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code.
“[This] article, referring to the discouragement of military service, states: ‘Persons who give incentives or make suggestions or spread propaganda which will have the effect of discouraging people from performing military service shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of six months to two years’,” said Professor Bora Isyar from the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. He is currently writing an article on conscientious objectors in Turkey.
According to Isyar, the objector is treated as a soldier despite his refusal to bear arms and, when he refuses to obey military orders, is charged with transgressing the military penal code.
During his time as a government employee in Diyarbakir from 1995-2004, Tarhan experienced the downside of militarism for the first time. “The Turkish army was mistreating the Kurds. That time changed me,” he said.
Today, militarism goes against everything Tarhan believes in. Active in the gay community, he publicly announced his objection to the military in October 2001. For four years the Turkish government left him alone.
In 2005, everything changed when he was thrown in jail, where he claims he was constantly verbally harassed and tortured.
Ozan Ekin Goksin, a 23 year-old student from Istanbul, refused military service last year on International Conscientious Objectors’ Day (May 15th).
Goksin, a socialist, believes that arms should not be used to achieve political aims. As a university student he was able to postpone his military service until he turns 30.
Still, he believes the military is changing. “There has even been talk of a professional army,” he said.
Ogus Sonmez, who turned against the military only after completing his military service in 1993, agrees.
“The army is already giving in to pressure from European courts and civil rights movements,” he said.
Sonmez is a founder of the website Savas karsitlari (opponents of war), aimed at helping people like Goksin and Tarhan who want to refuse military service.
There is a lot of social pressure in Turkey to join the army, Sonmez explained. “You need to protect the homeland, otherwise you go against Turkishness. If you don’t join the army, you don’t become a man,” he said.
Currently, conscientious objectors have no legal status in Turkey.
Tarhan lives in constant fear of arrest. “It could happen today, it could happen 50 days from now, or it could happen ten years from now,” he said.
According to Isyar, even if not caught by the military police, those who refuse military service are subject to what one European judge has called a “civil death”.
“You cannot be employed, vote, open a business, get married or register your children. In other words, you cannot enjoy any of the civil rights that citizens of the Turkish Republic enjoy,” he explained.
Today, Tarhan supports himself with odd jobs in the grey market and with the help of his family.
Yet, if he could go back, he would do it all over again: “This is what I believe in. [Anti-militarism] is my utopia.”