A Conscientious Objector in Turkey


Turkish conscientious objector Halil Savda says that the authorities are trying to keep public opinion in the dark about the existence of people rejecting militarism, and obstruct any public discussion of the issue. The European Union should be doing more about the issue, he says.

The Guardian, April 16th 2009

In 2002, at the age of 28, I thought about becoming an objector for the first time. One of our objector friends, Mehmet Bal, was in a military prison where he was tortured.

Of course I was aware that becoming a conscientious objector meant that I could also be subjected to the same treatment. This thought scared me a lot. I declared my conscientious objection at the Besiktepe (in Tekirdag) military barracks in November 2004.

Through my rejection to military service, I said “no” to the conflict that has been going on between the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] and the Turkish armed forces for the last 25 years. I sent the message to the people of Turkey not to join the army or the guerrillas through my conscientious objection.

While strengthening my search for freedom through my conscientious objection, I gave the message that security of life can only be realised through detaching violence from it. I believe that we need to go beyond violence and that a culture of non-violence should flourish.

In Turkey, military service is a laboratory in which masculinity is reproduced. I objected to military service, because I am also against this laboratory-manufactured masculinity. Violence is widespread in the region where I grew up, in Sırnak/Cizre in the south-east of Turkey. Therefore, friends and family were suspicious of my thoughts on non-violence, authority and patriarchy. They did not take my opinion seriously.

They were saying that there was no way out of conscription. Of course they were telling me this as they believed that I would be imprisoned and would be subjected to torture and pressure which is why they wanted me to perform military service.

Public opinion in Turkey is that “every male must perform military service”. In addition, in Turkey, no one wants to oppose the army, as it may have serious consequences. When people know my status and that I oppose the army, naturally they are reserved and scared.

When I declared my conscientious objection, military officers and soldiers were surprised. In the beginning, they did not know how to react and deal with me. Therefore, they kept me in the military barracks for eight days, wearing my regular clothing.

Afterwards, they recorded my statement. One of the officers, who was listening to my statement, told me that “With your statement you are committing a crime. There can be no state without an army. Every Turk is obliged to perform military service.”

I was referred to the military prosecutor. Following that, I was tried at the military court and arrested. I was arrested four times and detained in a military prison. I was tried at the court three times. In total I was imprisoned for 17 months. During my detention, I was subjected to torture by beating. I was psychologically tortured by the military officials and subjected to abuse.

For instance, at the Disciplinary Ward of the 8th Mechanized Brigade, a military officer and guardians kicked my legs apart and began hitting me. I was forced to sleep on the floor; they did not provide me with a mattress or blankets.

On 25 April 2008, the Çorlu Military Hospital Medical Council gave me a "not fit for military service report" for me based on “anti-social behaviour and lack of masculinity and Turkishness”. Following this report, I am exempted from the military at the moment.

The Turkish authorities try to ignore the issue of conscientious objection in order to keep public opinion in the dark and obstruct the recognition and public discussion of conscientious objection. As a part of this strategy of ignoring and silencing the claims of conscientious objectors, the authorities have recently been issuing these “rotten reports” (not fit for military service reports) to imprisoned conscientious objectors.

However, I am still under threat of Article 318 of the Military Penal Code “alienating the Public from Military Service”. According to this article, if I support objectors and the right to conscientious objection or criticise the army in any way, I could be now imprisoned up to four and a half years. For instance, I was sentenced to five months' imprisonment, because in a press release in 2006, I declared my support for two Israeli objectors, Amir Paster and Itzik Shabbat, who objected Israel’s occupation of Lebanon.

I applied for a passport this year and received my passport. Amnesty International sent me an invitation letter to attend the seminar launching a book on conscientious objection last night. However, my visa application was refused by the British Consulate in Istanbul. Their refusal was based on the fact that I do not have a job, national insurance number, bank account and any property. As a conscientious objector, I have experienced “civil death.” Consequently, I cannot travel abroad at the moment.

But I have never regretted my decision. I believe that as individuals we have a responsibility towards humanity of which we are a part. Our responsibility is to refuse war and militarism. I refused to be a part of the militarist system which produces destruction, devastation, pain, hunger, exploitation and slavery. No one can make me believe that dying, killing and desperation are our destiny.

If there were no international institutions and treaties, conscientious objectors could be subjected to even harsher treatments. However, I believe that European Union does not pay sufficient attention to the issue of conscientious objection during Turkey’s accession process. In 2006, the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 3, which is on ill-treatment, in the case of Ulke v Turkey. But, Ulke and his lawyers requested that the Court would consider Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well. However, the Court did not find it necessary to consider Article 9.

We believe that the right to conscientious objection derives from the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The Court’s stance on this subject is unsatisfactory. I also believe that this approach is not compatible with the foundation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

If I could speak to the head of the Turkish army, I would say: “You are damaging the society and the environment. You are poisoning the society when you are brainwashing them on the sanctity of the army. Only life is sacred. Believe in the sanctity of life and disarm yourself. ”

Halil Savda was interviewed by email by Natalie Bennett, editor of the Guardian Weekly, with translation by Ozgur Heval Cinar, one of the editors of Conscientious Objection: Resisting Militarized Society, which has just been published by Zed Books. You can also find an account from an Israeli conscientious objector, Sahar Vardi, here.