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.

Sto­ries of vio­lence from Turkey: In the Sep­tem­ber 12 coup d’état, the State had me under­stand that I was dan­ger­ous: taught me in school that I’m Ale­vi; and Kur­dish when I ques­tioned war. And yet, I dreamt of a world in which no one was “oth­er”.

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.

In the Der­sim mountains

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.

2013 Istan­bul, Gaypride, before it was banned.

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

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