Turkey: from invasion to resistance

The constitution calls it "fatherland service" and requires all male Turkish citizens over 20 years old to do military service. Yet, despite the strength of Turkey's militarist traditions, for years there has been widespread avoidance of conscription.

It used to be official: anyone could have their military service reduced to a month's basic training simply by paying a "ransom". Others took advantage of the inefficiencies of Turkish bureaucracy or deferments such as those available to students. Somehow, even though their military registration number is included on their identity cards, the sons of the rich and influential seemed to find it especially easy to avoid doing military service.

However, since December 1993 the Turkish government, wanting to bring the undeclared war in the south-east (Kurdistan) to an end, has been taking measures to deal with its military manpower (sic) problems. Estimating there were 250,000 deserters and draft evaders, it issued an ultimatum: report by May or else face a prison sentence of up to three years, plus military service. According to official figures, only 50,000 reported, and so in February 1994 the "ransom" option -- set at 10,000 DM -- was restricted to Turks living abroad. Before long military service was lengthened, from 15 to 18 months.

At the same time, it has not wanted to tackle head-on anyone's determined refusal to fight. The first public objectors in 1990 were anarchists, Tayfun Gönül and Vedat Zencir. For Tayfun, "conscientious objection is a political act, a way of making the army debatable. In Turkey, for historical reasons, the army is taboo. Turkey was founded by military officers. That is why the use of force has a secure place in Turkish culture. The male has a dominant position, war heroes are idolised". Keeping the army above debate, the authorities charged him not with refusing to do military service, but under Article 155 of the Turkish Penal Code, "alienating the people from the military". Tayfun and Vedat were fined in 1990.

Founding of War Resisters' Association

They were two of the founders of Savaº Kar¹itlari Dernegi (War Resisters' Association) in Izmir in December 1992. The group's aims were support for objectors and public consciousness-raising against the war. At the outset, SKD embarked on a strategy of confrontation. Within a month of its foundation, six members called a press conference to declare their objection. The authorities did not react. SKD then initiated a Peace Journey to Kurdistan, involving other non-governmental groups in Izmir, which in turn led to the Izmir Peace Platform -- a coordination of groups campaigning against the war. In July, without permission, the group hosted the International CO Meeting which also attracted anti-militarists from other parts of Turkey.

In Turkey, all associations are supposed to register with the government. In November 1993, the government refused to accept SKD in Izmir. This did not stop activity. Indeed in February 1994 a new Izmir SKD, with a new constitution, was launched and embarked on the lengthy process of registration.

After a TV interview about CO in December 1993, two SKD members -- Aytek Özel and Menderes Meltli -- were arrested for contravening Article 155, leading to a sentence of one year and 15 days for Aytek (Menderes went into hiding). At least ten peace activists, five journalists and a committee of a branch of the Human Rights Association have since been charged under Article 155.

The biggest case followed a press conference of the Istanbul SKD. Istanbul SKD had been set up in September 1993 with a somewhat different orientation to Izmir, less anarchist and more socialist, not united against all war but primarily against the war in Kurdistan. In May 1994, two days after International CO Day which had focused on Turkey, and two days before the government ultimatum to evaders expired, they called a press conference. Their president, Arif Hikmet Iyidogan, urged conscripts not to answer the call-up and demanded the right to CO in Turkey. Osman Murat Ülke stated that Izmir shared these views, and then three objectors declared that they refused military service. Arrests swiftly followed, of SKD members and of members of a German delegation, and Istanbul SKD was itself declared illegal. Arif, Osman, Mehmet Sefa Fersal and Gökhan Demirkiran were all charged under Article 155.

Held in Mamak Military Prison awaiting trial for over two months, Arif was forced to wear military uniform, although he successfully refused military training. At one court hearing, however, he dramatically took off the military uniform, declaring that he would never become a soldier.

The case concluded over a year later, on 29 August 1995, when Arif was sentenced to six months, Gökhan to four, and Mehmet to two. Osman was acquitted as he had not been one of the organisers, but was straightaway taken to the recruiting office and ordered to join a military unit. Instead, on 1 September 1995, Osman burnt his military papers at a press conference, declaring "I am not a draft evader, but a conscientious objector".

Building solid structures

Throughout the period of this trial, Izmir SKD had been following a quieter, non-confrontational strategy to give their movement a sound basis. This meant building solid structures in Turkey and integrating with an international network; preparing the first COs "to go through fire and water"; and establishing CO as an independent concept that could not be hi-jacked by groups advocating class warfare or war for national independence.

Osman burning his military papers marked a new phase. Behind him are others, also prepared to go public and to take consequences of their objection. The days of evasion are not over, but perhaps the days of resistance have arrived.