x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Turkey jails conscientious objector

In the eyes of the strictly secular Turkish military, Enver Aydemir is a walking provocation. But he is ready to pay the price.

ISTANBUL // In the eyes of the strictly secular Turkish military, Enver Aydemir is a walking provocation. But he is ready to pay the price. When Mr Aydemir, who is 33 today, received the call-up for his mandatory military service in 2007, he told army officials his religious beliefs made it impossible for him to wear the uniform of a secular institution such as the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish military regards itself as the guardian of the people's secular values.

"As a supporter of Sharia, I will definitely not serve as a soldier of the secularly governed Turkish Republic, and I will not wear military uniform," Tanzer Kurt, Mr Aydemir's lawyer, quoted his client as saying. Mr Aydemir, a father of two, was detained by the military, and he later said he was physically abused. "He is the first religiously motivated conscientious objector in Turkey," Mr Kurt said this week in a telephone interview from the western Turkish city of Eskisehir, where Mr Aydemir is in military prison.

Every Turkish man has to complete 15 months of military service. Exceptions are granted only on medical grounds. Often called "service for the fatherland", the draft is generally seen as a patriotic duty. Turkey, an EU applicant, does not recognise a right to refuse military service, even though the country has been asked by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to improve the legal situations for objectors. As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey has to comply with the Strasbourg rulings.

Critics such as Mr Kurt say the fact that Turkey treats conscientious objectors such as Mr Aydemir not as civilians but as members of the military whose cases are handled by the military justice system is a violation of the human rights principle that no civilian should be tried by military courts. "That is unconstitutional," Mr Kurt said. He is appealing against the most recent decision of a military court in Eskisehir, which ruled last week that Mr Aydemir would be tried by a higher court with a panel of three military judges because of the seriousness of the accusations against him. If convicted, Mr Aydemir could spend five years in prison. He may face a renewed call-up by the military after the completion of his sentence.

Mr Kurt says he is not giving up. "They will probably reject the appeal, but I will take the case to the court of appeals in Ankara," he said. If all else fails, he said he would turn to the European court in Strasbourg. Mr Aydemir's problems with the military began in July 2007. After he refused to start his military service, officers swore at him, Mr Aydemir said, according to human rights groups. About 10 soldiers forcibly put a uniform on him and gave him a military hair cut. He was detained in a military prison, where soldiers took his copy of the Quran away from him. They handed it back to him after he protested. According to some reports, Mr Aydemir had to pray in handcuffs for some time and was thrown into a cold cell dressed only in his underwear.

A military court released him in October 2007 and told him to report for duty at his designated unit. When Mr Aydemir refused to do so, he became a deserter in the eyes of the military. He was rearrested last month on his way to a panel debate about conscientious objection in Istanbul and sent back to military prison in Eskisehir. Mr Aydemir did not take part in his court hearing last week because he still refuses to wear the uniform.

Mr Kurt said his client was determined to stick to his objection to military service. "His morale is in place," the lawyer said. According to estimates by human rights groups, there are about 80 conscientious objectors in Turkey, a tiny minority in a country of 72 million people with a military of 600,000 soldiers, the second largest armed forces in Nato after the US military. Still, the case of Mr Aydemir has attracted widespread attention, both inside and outside Turkey. Last week, police arrested nine supporters of Mr Aydemir who had staged a protest rally in Eskisehir, a pressure group named Enver Aydemir Initiative said on its website. Last month, police in the capital, Ankara, clashed with protesters calling for Mr Aydemir's release. At least 15 people were detained, news reports said.

Last week, the international human rights group Amnesty International issued a public appeal for Mr Aydemir and urged supporters to write protest letters to the Turkish government, parliament and military authorities. Mr Kurt welcomed the appeal by Amnesty International, an influential rights group. Given the growing public pressure, military authorities may be looking for ways to solve the case of Mr Aydemir without more controversy.

Mr Kurt pointed to the recent decision by the military to exclude Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot pope John Paul II in 1981, from military service for psychological reasons. "Maybe they will do something similar" in the case of Mr Aydemir, Mr Kurt said. tseibert@thenational.ae