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Against All Odds


“I refuse to buy my freedom of speech by paying money,” said Eren Keskin, the Head of the Istanbul Branch of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, during a press conference in Istanbul on the 22nd of March. A few days earlier, a Turkish court had sentenced her to 10 months’ imprisonment for insulting the country’s military. The sentence was then converted to a fine of 6000 New Turkish Liras, which Keskin is refusing to pay, however, saying that she will go to prison instead. Moreover, she asserts: “I will continue to express both verbally and in writing my thoughts, which are banned unlawfully by the ruling powers, because we are not the ones who should change; they are.”

“The case will be heard by the Court of Appeals. It will take several months before it reaches a verdict. In the meantime campaigns in support of freedom of speech in Turkey both at home and abroad will help a lot to influence the general climate in Turkey for greater democracy,” told me Ayse Gunaysu, an activist in the organization headed by Keskin.

The court sentence against Keskin was based on the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which states that public denigration of Turkishness, the Grand National Assembly (Turkey’s legislature) or the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the state, as well as the military and security structures are punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years. In recent months, dozens of Turkish activists and intellectuals, including the world-renowned author Orhan Pamuk, have been charged under this article.

Keskin, who is also the founder of the Project for Legal Aid to Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault Under Custody, had been accused of “insulting” the Turkish military big time in 2002, after giving a speech in Köln, Germany about cases of sexual assault against women inmates by the state security forces in Turkey. Keskin explains: “In my presentation under the topic “Sexual Violence Perpetrated by the State,” I shared with the audience certain findings of our project, which had been going since 1997. I said that sexual torture was used as a systematic method of psychological warfare and that victims of such torture were afraid to file complaints against the security forces.”

I discussed with Eren Keskin issues related to human rights violations in Turkey in late March, a few days after the recent court ruling. Taking into account the oft-repeated assertions that Turkey had made great strides towards respect for human rights in the last few years in its quest for EU membership, I asked her whether these changes were radical or cosmetic. “I don’t believe that the changes that have been made or are being made in this process are radical,” she replied. “I don’t think that the state has any intention to change, because the changes introduced have no power to transform the essence of the system. Yet we have to admit that they have at least provided an atmosphere where certain issues are being discussed.”

Thou Shalt not Insult the Army

The generals in Turkey consider themselves the guardians of the country’s secular constitution and they have an established tradition of directly intervening in politics, including a number of direct and indirect military coups since 1960. In Keskin’s opinion, all legislative, executive and judicial powers in Turkey are still under their control. “The military in Turkey not only determines both domestic and foreign policy, but also enjoys huge economic power through one of Turkey’s biggest business groups, OYAK, which operates literally in all sectors of the economy, from banking to tourism. Moreover, all OYAK companies are exempt from any tax liability,” explained Keskin. Hence, she believes that the main impediment to improving Turkey’s human rights record is the military.

“Today, even those who define themselves as being part of the left in Turkey do not question the taboos determined by the “red lines,” which the military has set,” she said, noting that overcoming the military’s domination of the state is extremely difficult in Turkey.

“Domestic Enemies”

As this article is being written, thousands of protesters, mostly Kurds, are clashing with the Turkish police in the southeast of the country. For decades, Turkey has failed to find a decent solution to its Kurdish problem. Ankara is reluctant to grant the most basic of cultural and political rights to the millions of Kurds, who live mainly in the country’s southeast, where the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, unleashed an armed struggle against the Turkish state in the 1980s.

“Kurds are one of the “domestic enemies” that this system, controlled by the military, needs to create in order to sustain its domination,” asserted Keskin. “Failure in providing any solution to this issue makes the military all the more powerful. Even the minor progress made lately in this field – achieved at enormous cost and partly the outcome of the EU accession process – does not change the fact that “the policy of ‘non-solution’ still dominates the government’s approach to the Kurdish issue.”

State of Denial

For decades, the greatest of all taboos in Turkey has been the Armenian genocide of 1915. In recent years, a number of intellectuals in the country have started to speak up about this issue, calling upon Turkey to face its past, oftentimes at the cost of being persecuted or sued under Article 301. “The Turkish official thesis regarding the Armenian genocide is still very influential in the street and in academia, although there are efforts to overcome this domination,” said Keskin, when asked about Ankara’s policy of denial towards the annihilation by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and under the cover of World War I of an estimated a million and a half Armenians in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire.

The overwhelming majority of genocide scholars and many parliaments around the world recognize this instance of mass slaughter as a classic case of genocide. The descendents of the genocide victims, in turn, continue to demand that Turkey, too, recognize the genocidal intent behind the decimation of the Armenians, who lived on their ancestral land. The Turkish government vehemently denies, however, that there was a planned destruction of an entire ethnic group. It also argues that the number of victims is vastly exaggerated.

According to Keskin, “there is no real break with the ideology of the CUP not only among the extremists but also among those who consider themselves part of the democratic opposition in Turkey. The ideology that led to the Armenian genocide was a very important element of the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey.”

Keskin has little faith that Turkey will come to terms with its past in the near future. “The general mindset of the majority of Turkish society, including a significant part of the left, has been shaped under the influence of this ideology. It is for this reason that I don’t believe much progress can be made in the short run,” she said. “However, I believe recognition of the genocide is crucial. Turkish people should acknowledge the sufferings of the Armenians, empathize with them and apologize for what happened in 1915.”

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Eren Keskin and many of her colleagues in Turkey operate in an environment of intimidation and threats. “We, the human rights activists, have learned, throughout these years, how to live with fear and to go on despite its persistence,” she said. “Up till now 14 executives and members of our Human Rights Association have been killed by what we call the counter-guerilla units. I myself have been the target of two armed attacks. I still receive death threats. Of course all these generate some fear in me, but if there is one thing, which we have learned by now, is to continue with our struggle despite fear. I guess we owe this to our faith in what we do.”

Indeed, it is on this faith that many people are counting.

Khatchig Mouradian is a Lebanese-Armenian writer and journalist.

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