Nineteen Years Later Nothing Changes in Turkey

ISTANBUL–Exactly nineteen years ago in 1984–notes the Turkey-based Armenian newspaper Marmara–then Turkish president Kenan Evren was handed a petition signed by 1300 intellectuals who protested irregularities prevalent in Turkey–specifically human rights injustices. At the time–President Evren dubbed the signatories "traitors" and called for the intellectuals to stand trial. At the head of the petitioners was Sanar Yurdatapan.

Nineteen year later–Sanar Yurdatapan has brought forth the same petition–changing only the date and certain addresses–and has handed it to the head of Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Commission. Yurdatapan conveyed that nothing has changed in Turkey in the past nineteen years; all irregularities and abuses noted in the petition persist today.

"We want–first and foremost–for the government to ensure that international agreemen’s accepted by Turkey–will–in fact–be implemented here," stressed Yurdatapan.

The head of Turkish parliament’s Human Rights Commission Mehmet Yelgatmez reacted to the petition: "Odd things happen in Turkey; laws change–but implementation doesn’t. Objections in Turkey don’t arise from the laws in place–rather from their [lack of] implementation. All human rights [laws] must be respected and implemented–and those who believe in the importance of international standards–must support this program."

In 1984–public opinion was shaken by the petition brought forth by the intellectuals; and try as he may–Evren was unable to convict the "traitors," Turkey’s prominent intellectuals.


Sanar Yurdatapan bravely and ingeniously mocks Turkey’s arbitrary–excessive–and punitive policies that seek to restrict the expression of unpopular–nonviolent opinions. Sanar became a well-known composer–songwriter–and advocate for free expression in the 1970s. Following the military coup of 1980–he left Turkey and went to Germany–where he lived in exile for over eleven years. The Turkish military regime stripped him of his citizenship–but he was able to return to Turkey in 1991 and had his citizenship restored the following year.

Yurdatapan is the informal coordinator of the Freedom of Expression Initiative–which is a group of young people that work together with people prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Yurdatapan has now published 43 Freedom of Expression Booklets and he has also written fiction–including Fatos’un Gunlugu [Fatosh’s diary] (Yurt Publications–1998)–the comic recollections of a 10-year-old girl. He was also a regular columnist for the Kurdish daily newspaper Ozgur Gundem (Free Agenda). In addition–he has also organized two high profile events called Gatherings for Freedom of Expression aimed at drawing attention to the constraints on freedom of expression in Turkey.

He organized a delegation to investigate the killing of eleven Kurdish villagers at Guclukonak in January 1996. The massacre was allegedly carried out by the PKK–and the Office of the Chief of General Staff organized flights of journalists into the remote area to film the bodies. Because the PKK were at that time on cease-fire–and also denied the killing–it was widely assumed that state forces had carried out the killings to discredit the PKK. However–the massacre took place in an area that was previously completely inaccessible to human rights monitors. SY organized a large–high profile delegation that included figures (such as a German MP of Turkish ethnicity) whom it would be impossible for the gendarmerie to turn back under the view of cameras and journalists. The evidence uncovered by Sanar Yurdatapan and the other members of the delegation showed almost beyond doubt that this was a state massacre. They submitted their evidence to the prosecutor–and when nothing was done for three months–Sanar Yurdatapan made a public declaration accusing the Chief of General Staff of covering up the massacre. The authorities replied with a trial for insulting the military–for which Sanar Yurdatapan and two others received prison sentences. He appealed and was only recently acquitted. He has again publicly accused the military of covering up the Guclukonak massacre.

Turkey is one country where it is dangerous to express certain opinions–particularly concerning two of the most contested topics in modern life: the role of Islam and the plight of the Kurdish ethnic minority. In Turkey–an adamantly secular state–you may not suggest that your religion has a role in your politics. You may not suggest that your ethnicity has a role in your politics. On the other hand you may not question the political role of the military. Those who do so risk imprisonment–fines–and the banning of their publications. Freedom of expression is currently a pressing issue in Turkey–one that symbolizes the country’s move toward democratic governance and figures prominently in its future acceptance into the European Union.


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