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COs welcome work on new law, but warn against pitfalls

Today’s Zaman, 16.11.2011

Turkey’s conscientious objectors (CO) welcomed a recent government announcement that conscientious objection will be a legitimate reason for not performing military duty, which is currently compulsory in Turkey, but warn that there might be unintended consequences depending on the content of the legislation that is adopted.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told reporters on Tuesday that the Ministry of Defense was working on a draft to decriminalize conscientious objection, but did not reveal any information as to the content of the law. The statement comes shortly after Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) President Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned the government that the Council of Europe (CoE), which has been urging Turkey to pass legislation to allow COs not to serve in the military, could even deprive Turkey of its membership in the council, if Parliament fails to solve the problem by the year’s end.

However, neither Ergin nor the Ministry of Defense clarified what the content of the new regulations will be, a point that worries most COs.

The government, which has been planning a transition to a professional army for Turkey for the past few years, is addressing the issue of conscientious objection at the same time that another law is in the works which will allow those who pay a certain amount to perform a shortened version of military service. Currently, graduates of higher education institutions serve for six months, and those without higher education serve for 12 months. These periods used to be longer in the past. The CoE has been urging Turkey to adopt laws to accommodate male citizens who refuse to serve in the military on moral, religious or conscientious grounds since 2006. Turkey is the only council member which does not have a regulation for COs, who have often been imprisoned for their refusal to serve, and according to many reports, have been subject to physical abuse in military prisons. In other words, under the current laws, it takes a real warrior to resist war.

A number of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in cases filed by COs, particularly that of Osman Murat Ülke of Turkey and Vahan Batanyan of Armenia, have contributed to the council’s increased pressure on Turkey to adopt new regulations. Halil Savda, who spent 17 months of his life in military prisons, is one of the most publicly well-known COs in Turkey. He was finally released from jail in 2009, but a new regulation on conscientious objection will not help his situation legally, simply because he is no longer in any kind of “legal situation.” “At the time of my release, they gave all the COs reports declaring them unfit for military service, against their will. So I was also declared unfit to serve,” he explained.

Sönmez noted that according to an announcement made by Vecdi Gönül, the previous defense minister, currently 1.1 million people are listed as “avoiders,” which means they never showed up to serve after they were drafted.

Mehmet Tarhan, who first announced his conscientious objection 10 years ago, spoke to the Radikal daily in an interview published on Wednesday, raising similar concerns. But he said that even if conscientious objection was legalized, the number of COs would remain low, because of the social stigma attached to being a CO. Sönmez didn’t agree, saying the high number of those avoiding military service indicates that although Turks publicly like to sound as if they are fond of military duty (“Every Turk is born a soldier,” a commonly used adage asserts), in reality most people would do almost anything to get out of military service. “Today, they are considering transitioning to a professional army. Concerns that in such an environment those who come out as COs will be labeled public enemies aren’t realistic.” He said before Germany professionalized its military, two out of every three people said they were COs. “Greece is trying to eliminate the alternative of public service [offering only the option of military service], because no one wants to serve in the military,” he said.



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