Zeynep Koçak questioned author and journalist Ercan Jan Aktaş, a conscientious objector now exiled in France… A friendly interview, published in Turkish in Kopuntu on September 30th 2017.
In Turkey,conscientious objection is not recognized by law, and there exists no legislation covering conscientious objectors. Because of this, conscientious objectors are considered as plain deserters and even after completing their sentence, they must perform their military service.
We must specify that military service is compulsory only for men in Turkey. However some women declare themselves as conscientious objectors because this is a universal struggle. Gender assignments do not exist in the Turkish language (this in no way advances the cause for women’s rights, but that is another issue)… for translation purposes we will not systematically feminize the text for once, for the following article does not deal with a universally applicable issue but deals in particular with the situation of male objectors/desertors in Turkey.
Turkey • What do conscientious objectors live through under the state of emergency ?
Although the Turkish Constitution recognizes conscientious objection as a right, what conscientious objectors endure becomes heavier every day, and following the declaration of a state of emergency after (the failed putsch) July 15 2016, the trials for conscientious objection have taken on an even more dramatic turn.
From here on, I think the names of the calendar months take us back to many things. For example, we’ve just ended the month of September. On 6–7 September, (dates of the 1995 Istanbul pogroms against ethnic minorities, especially the Roms). Reminders also of the September 12 military coup in 1980, of a September 10 when it was decided to jail the Altan brothers, and let’s not forget the trials of the Cumhuriyet journalists that also took place in September. The month of July is another. On July 20 2015, we had the Suruç massacre when Turkey descended into a war atmosphere, then, on July 24, the decision to cut short the peace process, and one year later, on July 15 2016, the putsch – or whatever you want to call it – which redefines all of our relationships with the State. Finally, this year on July 26, we saluted Ahmet Şık’s “I Accuse !” statement at his trial.
We had an exchange with Ercan Jan Aktaş who presently lives in Paris, with whom we had already talked about « being a conscientious objector in Turkey » about the latest reforms. The conversation was about the effects of the state of emergency on the right to conscientious objection and the daily living conditions for an objector.
Solidarity was the word of the day…
Ercan, hello again… During my reflection on conscientious objection, I realized that we hadn’t talked about the effects of the state of emergency on the living conditions of objectors, for whom daily life was already complicated… First, could you summarize for us the July 15 2016 putsch from your point of view? What did it represent for you and where does it fit into the overall picture?
Ercan: Hi Zeynep. First of all, I want to say this: as I said in our first meeting, what conscientious objectors experience in Turkey could be defined as a “civil death”. As the state of emergency has very strong consequences on everyone’s life, this is also the case for the judiciary processes concerning conscientious objectors. With the state of emergency in Turkey, life for all environments, groups and individuals with demands of justice, equality and freedom has become even more difficult than it was in the past. However we choose to call it, what happened on July 15 2016 was truly a coup d’état.
As for what it means ? This coup d’état took place with the complicity of the AKP and the MHP (ultranationalist party). The putsch process means a severe retrun to racist, militaristic and monolithic nation-State principles established by “teşkilat‑ı mahsusa” [“Special Organization” a unit created by the leaders of the Young Turks in 1914 and involved in the Armenian genocide]. For those who do not accept this racist policy of “Turcity” this new period has nothing to envy to those of earlier coups d’état.
In your opinion, would you say that struggle groups with different objectives, stances and visions of society can join together, at least on the ideas, when faced with this military-racist policy ?
Ercan: Yes, of course. As conscientious objectors we’ve been part of a common struggle for years with groups and persons with whom we share the same ideal of freedom. We have always said that in Turkey, there will be no freedom for any of us until social peace has come into being through a social contract. If all of us are not free, then, none of us are.
The common enemy: the racist, military and “monotype” policy… Ridding ourselves of this patriarcal system is also part of the common struggle…
Ercan: Absolutely… Despite all our struggle, we have not managed to push back the patriarcal and militaristic system, and put in place social peace in Turkey. Today, we experience the suffering from this even more than we did before.
Where do conscientious objectors stand in this struggle?
Ercan: Right at the heart of it. Each objector is at the core of this regime of oppression and violence.
Life has never been easy for objectors… we all know that. So how are objectors’ lives affected now that the regime of oppression and violence has reached an even higher level?
Ercan: You’re right, life was never easy in Turkey for us objectors. In becoming an objector, we accepted a life with no address and no security. But thanks to the network of solidarity we had built, we had weaved together “another world” and we faced all the negatives imposed on us thanks to that solidarity. Our struggle made us strong. This is still the case today.
But with the coup d’état on July 15, the oppression went crescendo. Objectors also have families, and even when this is not the case, they have lives to live with economic needs. In the past year, objectors and hundreds of thousand persons who are not called up to military service have been pushed out of their professional life. The circulars sent by the National Defense to employers didn’t exist before. This is a first in the history of the Republic [of Turkey]. These circulars notify employers “Do not hire deserters”. Many objectors who did not answer the call up or conscription, and therefore considered as deserters, were forced to stop working.
Have there been any changes in the fines?
Ercan: Yes, and that’s another consequence. Notifications of fines in the thousands of Turkish lira have been sent to the addresses of each one of us. These two situations, the circulars and the fines, put even more pressure on us. And fighting against this oppression has become harder than ever.
GBT controls [Genel Bilgi Tarama – a direct liaison system with access to the S file of a person being controlled) arrests in hotels or other places, arrests on the road… Have there been changes?
Ercan: GBT controls also existed before. But with the state of emergency these control have intensified and taken on an arbitrary character. For all of us the streets in our towns have become even more dangerous. It has become almost impossible to travel, to be sheltered anywhere and to build a life with some economic possibilities. All of this was complicated before. Following implantation of the state of emergency, I can state that all means of survival are destroyed. This makes life impossible for objectors and deserters.
So then, what did you do? You were in France, you were hoping the ‘no’ would win at the referendum. We all hoped for that, and so did you. You said “if the ‘no’ wins, I’ll go back”, and that didn’t happen…
Ercan: Of course I lived through my share of those oppressions before coming here. During the first wave of raids mentioned in the press as “Operation against social media”, the family home where I lived was raided at dawn by special forces in the presence of Scorpions [armored vehicles]. There was already an order of arrest against me. But I wasn’t there when my home was raided. I was caught during a GBT control and brought before the prosecutor.
Of what were you accused ? Did they arrest you only because you did not do your military service?
Ercan: No. There are three trials against me. The first is under the well-known n°301. The one that begins with, “To the State, to the respectability of the State, to the army, to the National Assembly…”* The second concerns article n°318, “public defamation of the army”, and “propaganda for a terrorist organization on social media”**
[*] Article 301: Controversial article in the Turkish penal code making it illegal to insult Turkey, Turkish identity or Turkish institutions. In application since June 1st 2005 it was introduced as part of the reform of the penal code in the context of the opening of negotiations for the admission of Turkey into the EU, thus, to bring Turkey up to European standards. The public defamation of the Turkish nation, of the State of the Republic of Turkey and of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey as well as of its judiciary institutions, the army and police organizations is punishable by six months to two years imprisonment. However, it is specified that the expression of a critical thought does not constitute an offence. Indictment under this article requires the approval of the Minister of Justice.
[**] Article 318: Incitement and suggestions defaming military service in the population and propaganda to this end will be punished with six months to two years in prison. If the offence is committed in the press and the media, the sentence will be increased by half.
Are you proud of these indictments against you?
Ercan: Not proud maybe, but through all of this I express my political thought. As an anti-war, anti-militaristic conscientious objector, these three files reflect my positions against the racist and militaristic policies produced by the State. Even the “International Conference on Conscientious Objection” that we organized as the Association of Conscientious Objection was entered as evidence against me. Of course, the most popular accusation is that of “insult against Tayyip Erdoğan”.
So you did not return from France to Turkey?
Ercan: While those trials were underway, I was already in France for round tables in Paris and Lyon. I had been living in France for almost a year. We had talked about it in our first interview. Finally another order for my arrest was sent to my family home in Istanbul. On May 14 2005, I had declared my conscientious objection by stating “I will not be an instrument of war policies, and I will not wear this uniform.” So, twelve years later, I received an order for my arrest and a fine of seven thousand Turkish lira.
You left Turkey. You were able to do so. With Mikail [Zeynep’s companion] I’ve witnessed more or less the same things. I would like to say something about this. Perhaps exile is a method Turkey uses to get rid of those who refuse to do their military service and don’t think the way the authorities do?
Ercan: There are hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey who, just like me, whether they are objectors or not, do not do their military service for various reasons. Close to 2000 of them are objectors. And the situation is exactly as you’ve described. These persons are told : “Either you will wear the uniform or you’ll leave the country.” This causes a very serious prejudice. Because of increased repression, it is no longer possible to weave solidarity networks as we did before. Consequently, persons living through these difficulties remain alone and totally isolated.
Are there people who contact you on this topic for advice ; to be informed about the process or to understand the risks such a decision would generate for their future ?
Ercan: Almost every week someone contacts me via social media to ask about this topic or to tell me “I also want to come to Europe.” And I explain that exile is not a solution. I know this from personal experience. I am in Europe. Yes, State oppression is lifted off our shoulders but it is really not easy to stay away from the towns, the streets where we lived and the people with whom we shared our life.
Only those who live it can know this… [From afar] we tend to see life in Europe as happy and easy. Yes, perhaps we all live quietly far from State oppression… but henceforth, we are all exiles.
Ercan: I express what I feel: I’ve been in France for eleven months now. Not a single hour goes by when I don’t feel the pain of nostalgie and emptiness. It is a serious emotional pressure. I am someone who has also lived in jail, and not for a short period, I can say that except for the periods when there were State massacres in the jails, I’ve never experienced so much mental difficulty. I used to say “nostalgia is beautiful”, now I realize what a stupid saying that was…
I’m not putting the words in your mouth… Really, only those who have experienced it can know what it’s like in terms of an emotional punishment. If I can express my own feeling; every time I go to Turkey, I have stomach pains before passport control. My mother waits by the phone “let me know when you’ve come through” Mikail waits, so does my brother. No matter the hour, even at night, they don’t sleep, they wait until I’ve gone through passport control. But enough of that… When you live abroad, every step, from buying a monthly bus subscription to registering your domicile, everything becomes a struggle.
Ercan: That’s it…As if we were all living in a jail beyond the borders.
All of a sudden, I think of Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart and his main character Okonkwo who leaves for exile. The young ones go through a rite of passage into adult life, outside their tribes, in the desert. In truth, the desert is a vast prison. There you are, now we are also thrown into an emotional desert. No matter what, we are in exile, in prison.
Ercan: Yes, unfortunately. Listen, Mehmed Uzun [contemporary Kurdish writer, novelist in Turkey) has a quote “Exile is a separation, a sadness. It is a heavy human condemnation”, he says. That is what I feel to the very tips of my fingernails.
So what are we going to do then?
Ercan: There is nothing else we can do other than weave solidarity networks, even small and dispersed ones. On this topic, it is possible that EBCO ( European Bureau for Conscientious Objection) and WRI (War Resisters’ International ) may have initiatives geared toward desertors and objectors from Turkey.
Do you know of any such initiatives or dialogues?
Ercan: To tell the truth, in the past two years, I haven’t seen those organizations in our struggle. Over those two years, an important diaspora has formed in Europe, coming from Turkey and Kurdistan. In the beginning of the common initiatives, there was a group in Berlin called “No to war and dictatorship”. I know that there’s solidarity and an association/organization among exiled university people. We should reinforce those initiatives. I follow the organizational efforts and their evolution. I also follow the work of the HDK‑A (People’s Democratic Congress — Europe) and try to participate from where I am.
Zeynep Koçak a doctoral Law student is working on themes such as the theory of State, the relationship between State and violence and notions of “crowds” and “masses”.
En français : “Turquie • Etre objecteur de conscience sous l’état d’urgence” Cliquez pour lire