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Turkish soldier suicides soar over abuse: rights group

Beatings and the humiliation of Turkish conscripts by their supervising officers has led to an alarming increase in suicides in the armed forces, a rights group says.

Kerem Ciftcioglu of the parliament’s human rights committee, says the number of suicides by privates during the past 10 years is higher than the number of soldiers killed in the war against Kurdish rebels over the same period.
Kerem Ciftcioglu of the parliament’s human rights committee, says the number of suicides by privates during the past 10 years is higher than the number of soldiers killed in the war against Kurdish rebels over the same period.

ISTANBUL // Beatings and the humiliation of Turkish conscripts by their supervising officers has led to an alarming rate of suicide in the armed forces, a rights group says.

Asker Haklari, or Soldiers' Rights, has published accounts from soldiers telling of violence, usually by officers, and impunity for the offenders. The reports have triggered a debate about what has been a touchy subject in a country where many see the military as a source of pride, not least because it played a vital role in the founding of the republic in 1923.

"It is a problem that every male conscript suffers from and knows about," Kerem Ciftcioglu, an activist with Asker Haklari, said this month.

In recent years, Turkey's military has lost much of its political power through reforms and has come under closer public scrutiny because of alleged coup plans among its ranks, but it remains the country's most trusted institution, according to opinion polls.

The new debate about abuse in the military is significant because millions of Turks have served in the army.

Conscripts make up about 500,000 of the 600,000 soldiers in the Turkish military, Nato's second biggest fighting force after the US armed forces. Regular conscripts serve a 15-month term, with university graduates serving six months.

As a result of complaints collected by Asker Haklari, parliament's human rights committee took up the issue of abuse in the armed forces. Last month, the committee shocked the nation by saying that the number of suicides by privates during the past 10 years was higher than the number of soldiers killed in the war against Kurdish rebels over the same period.

Ayhan Sefer Ustun, the committee chairman, said 934 soldiers had taken their own lives. "In the past 10 years, 818 members of the Turkish Armed Forces have become martyrs," Mr Ustun said. "These figures are unacceptable."

Mr Ciftcioglu of Asker Haklari said the group had collected more than 1,000 complaints from conscripts since April 2011 and that numbers were rising fast.

According to a report by the group, almost one out of two complaints included insults against conscripts by superiors, 39 per cent mentioned beatings and other kinds of physical violence, 16 per cent dealt with harassment and 13 per cent mentioned threats.

Mr Ciftcioglu said action by his group is specifically directed at regular conscripts. "We are not addressing the usual suspects in the democracy movement, we are focusing on normal soldiers," he said.

Asker Haklari's recommendations to solve the problem overlapped with demands for more democracy in Turkey, Mr Ciftcioglu said. He said the group supported calls for a stronger civilian oversight of the military, the abolition of the military justice system, the introduction of an ombudsman system within the armed forces, and demands for the protection of rights of conscientious objectors.

"There is a total unaccountability and hopelessness," Mr Ciftcioglu said. Abused soldiers had no place to turn to. "They need to be able to complain about this."

The military has responded by arguing that problems within the army reflected social problems in Turkey as a whole, stressing that most suicides of soldiers were related to drug abuse and family problems.

But Mr Ciftcioglu said a comparison with official figures showed that the suicide rate among conscripts was 2.71 times higher than that of young men in Turkey in general.

More may be behind the figures. Some cases officially declared to have been suicides have been questioned by activists like Mr Ciftcioglu and families of the soldiers who died.

This month parents of nine soldiers said to have killed themselves, attended a news conference in parliament in Ankara to demand that the judiciary investigate the cases as potential murders.

Mr Ciftcioglu said he hoped the debate might lead to improvements in the everyday life of soldiers simply by showing potential offenders that the public was watching.

"This sequence has been sufficiently troublesome for commanders," he said about the rising number of complaints. "There is more visibility now. From now on, commanders will think twice" before abusing conscripts, he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae