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Turkey Not Facing Up to Its Past

July 3, 2008 by  


Authorities still deny official involvement in disappearances of Kurds and leftists in the 1990s

By Christopher Torchia – The Associated Press

ISTANBUL–Hanim Tosun last saw her husband Fehmi in 1995 as he was being dragged into a car outside their home by men in civilian clothes who she is convinced were government agents.

His disappearance is among hundreds of old allegations of state-linked abductions and murders in a country that–even as it seeks entry into Europe’s club of democracies–seems unable or unwilling to fully confront its history of authoritarianism.

The culprits in these cases will probably never be identified. Back then, investigations were few and convictions fewer, and now there is little appetite to delve into the ugly past.

Turkey has curbed the worst excesses of its security forces, with the help of Western-style reforms and a drop in combat with Kurdish rebels and other militants. But authorities still deny official involvement in 1990s-era “disappearances” or summary executions of Kurds and leftists allegedly taken into government custody–who are estimated to number 800 by one rights group.

Some families of the disappeared are still pursuing the cases, but they are a minority, since challenging the Turkish state can lead to prosecution and jail time.
“This cause will never end for me,” said Hanim Tosun, whose husband had spent three years in prison for links to the Kurdish rebel group PKK before his abduction. “If this is a state run by the rule of law, then they should return the body.” Tosun belonged to the Saturday Mothers, a group that gathered weekly, holding up photos of the missing in protests similar to those held by relatives of those who vanished in the so-called Dirty War in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s.
The Turkish group ended rallies in 1999 after a police crackdown. The demonstrators, who were sometimes arrested, claimed the publicity contributed to a virtual end to such disappearances.

The European Union says Turkey, which has a history of military coups, must improve its human rights record if it wants to be a member. Progress has been notable if uneven.

Turkey is torn between the reformist push for transparency and an entrenched tendency to override the rights of individuals seen as threats to the state.

Elements of this conflict are evident in Turkey’s current political divide, in which the top court, a bastion of the secular elite, is considering whether to ban the Islam-oriented ruling party, which has a strong majority in parliament. Both sides in the dispute claim to be champions of the democratic ideals enshrined in the constitution, itself the byproduct of a 1980 military coup.

The US State Department said in March that there were no reports of “politically motivated disappearances” in Turkey last year, but cited other problems including torture and some instances of unlawful killings by security forces. The European Commission has said “legislative safeguards” were improving Turkey’s human rights situation, citing a “downward trend” in torture cases.

“Impunity remains an area of concern,” a European report said. “There is a lack of prompt, impartial and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations by members of security forces.” Turkey has said state-sponsored abuses were not systematic at the height of the guerrilla war in the 1990s, despite evidence of atrocities by both sides. Officials suggested that some who disappeared did so by choice as members of underground groups and that others perished in internal conflicts between rival rebel factions.

“Authorities are doing everything they can to find people who were reported missing by their families,” a senior Interior Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In some cases, the government has agreed to pay settlements and acknowledged inadequate inquiries. Families that took these deals had mixed feelings, pleased with winning a concession but aware that the government considered the cases closed to deeper inquiry.

The family of Fehmi Tosun went to the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding on Turkey. The court withdrew from the case after Turkey agreed to pay 40,000 euros in a so-called friendly settlement.

Tosun was grabbed around 7 p.m. on October 19, 1995, and his wife provided the license plate of the car to police. She was alerted to the abduction by one of her children, and cited witnesses as saying the kidnappers had walkie talkies.

“I went out to the balcony and saw their shadows,” Hanim Tosun said. “Then I saw a white car. My husband was being dragged into it. He raised his head and called for help, saying that they were kidnapping him and going to kill him.

“He was trying not to get in the car. One of the men had a gun. My son ran downstairs. I did the same too, but I was slower.” The family of Hasan Ocak, a leftist with alleged links to illegal groups, last spoke to him on March 21, 1995, when he telephoned to say he would bring fish home for dinner.

His body, with signs of torture, was found in a cemetery two months later.

Ocak disappeared during a period of deadly clashes between police and protesters in Istanbul. Detainees later said they had seen him at the anti-terrorist branch of the security forces in the city. Ocak had previously been detained and tortured, according to his family.

In 2004, Europe’s human rights court said Ocak’s family should be paid 25,000 euros because Turkey had failed to adequately investigate his death, but added it could not conclude that the state had killed him. Like Tosun’s family, Ocak’s family took the money, but still argued that justice had not been achieved.

“What we wanted was prosecution of those who were really responsible,” said Ocak’s sister, Maside. She said the ruling amounted to a political “gesture” to a candidate for EU membership.

“It is fortunate that we have a grave to visit because other people don’t even have that,” said Maside.

 

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