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Turkey’s decree revives past horrors and instils fear of future

Decree 696 brings back special uniforms for political prisoners and provides immunity from prosecution to civilians engaged in violence
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Ertugrul Mavioglu recoiled in horror when he learned that the draconian practice of forcing political prisoners to wear specially designed uniforms was reintroduced in Turkey through a state of emergency decree late last week.

Nearly four decades ago, a 19-year-old Mavioglu, along with hundreds of other “political prisoners”, had specially designed prison uniforms forced upon them following their arrest in the wake of the 12 September 1980 military coup.

To him those uniforms are synonymous with two things: indignity and torture.

“The first thing that came to my mind was the torture. Those uniforms for political prisoners and torture go hand-in-hand,” Mavioglu, an author and journalist told Middle East Eye.

“What we are witnessing now is the rule of a putschist mentality. They do this to dehumanise people and make them feel worthless.”

'The first thing that came to my mind was the torture. Those uniforms for political prisoners and torture go hand-in-hand'

- Ertugrul Mavioglu, Turkish journalist 

“Murderers and criminals are spared this ignominy, and that tells you everything,” he said.  

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government on 24 December signed off on state of emergency decree 696, which among the 137 articles it contains also reintroduces special uniforms for political prisoners - a practice scrapped in 1989. 

The state of emergency allows Erdogan and the government to bypass parliament and rule by decree. It also empowers it to take actions otherwise limited by the constitution.

The state of emergency was introduced five days after the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016 and has been extended for three-month periods ever since.

Article 128 of Decree 696

“… the provisions of clause 1 [immunity from prosecution] will apply to persons that were involved in the suppression of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt and acts of terror that ensue as a result of that, regardless of whether they hold official title or are not engaged in official duties”. 

Turkish authorities accuse Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Turkish preacher, and his followers, known as Gulenists, of orchestrating the botched coup attempt.

The resulting crackdown carried out with state of emergency powers has resulted in more than 50,000 arrests and more than 165,000 dismissals and suspensions from jobs.

Erdogan first brought up the idea of reintroducing special uniforms for political prisoners in a speech on 15 July. The topic was opened after a soldier being tried for attempting to assassinate Erdogan during the coup attempt arrived in court wearing a T-shirt with the English word Hero written on it.  

However, the post-coup crackdown has not been limited to alleged Gulenists alone and has targeted all of Erdogan’s and the AKP’s opponents – even political ones.

Erdogan and his AKP have been quick to stick the label “terrorist” and “traitor” on anyone who opposes them. Such claims increased in frequency after a poor election showing in mid-2015 and rocketed after the failed coup attempt.   

Even the country’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was labelled a “national traitor” by Erdogan earlier this month after he alleged that Erdogan’s family was involved in illicit financial actions using a company registered in the Isle of Man. 

One jailed political opponent is Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Imprisoned since 5 November 2016, Demirtas has already said he would prefer to wear a funeral shroud rather than have some uniform for political prisoners imposed on him. 

Mavioglu spent eight years behind bars in the 80s and most of them were spent resisting the imposition of the special uniforms - green jumpsuits at the time – through various acts of protest including hunger strikes and even death strikes. Four people died in the death strikes that he also participated in. 

According to Mavioglu, attempts to impose uniforms on political prisoners were made in various facilities at different times during that decade, and sometimes scrapped at individual centres after the strongest of protests.

In 1989, however, Mavioglu’s late father, Ibrahim, a lawyer, won his case in Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, when it ruled to scrap uniforms for political prisoners. It was seen as a decision establishing a precedent.

Mavioglu said the state, with this decree, is now breaking its own legal codes and violating its own concept of continuity by reintroducing uniforms for political prisoners.

Turkish police guard FETO suspects in Istanbul (Reuters)

‘State of law in peril’

Another contentious article in decree 696 is the immunity from prosecution given to civilians engaged in violent acts that violate the penal code.

The government has defended the article saying it only applies to civilians who were involved in defeating the coup attempt and its immediate aftermath.

This explanation and the ambiguous wording of the article, which does not mention specific dates and events, has failed to convince critics - including former high-ranking AKP figures.

This [article] is unacceptable in a country where the rule of law prevails and where there is democracy

Turgut Kazan, Turkish jurist

Turgut Kazan, a jurist and former president of the Istanbul Bar Association, told MEE this article in the decree would have grave consequences and risked the stability of the country in the longer term.

“This [article] is unacceptable in a country where the rule of law prevails and where there is democracy,” said Kazan.

“A lot has been said that this will foment civilian strife, promote the creation of private militias and worse. I am sorry to say that I agree with those assessments. Such an article has no place where the rule of law exists.”

Former Turkish president Abdullah Gul was also quick to express his concern about the wording used and its potential consequences.

In a tweet on 25 December Gul said he was concerned about the worrying legal language used in the decree and hoped it would be amended quickly.

TRANSLATION: I find the ambiguity used in the wording of decree number 696 – which I think was written with the heroic citizens in mind who resisted the treacherous coup attempt of 15 July without the slightest hesitation - that cannot be justified in legal terms concerning from the perspective of a state of law.

Gul went on to write that he hoped it would be reconsidered so that it wouldn’t lead to events in the future that would sadden us all.

Gul’s concerns were also mirrored by Bulent Arinc, a former deputy prime minister from the ranks of the AKP. 

Party officials, however, were quick to target Gul for his remarks, calling it a ploy to get involved in the presidential elections slated for 2019. Those elections will see the winner officially take over a presidency bestowed with vastly expanded powers.

Erdogan himself responded to Gul’s criticism and called it “disappointing”.

“The regulation is extremely clear. I have said this only applies to the event of 15 July. We are determined that it remain as is… Speaking of ambiguity is disappointing. What are you basing such comments on?” Erdogan was quoted by reporters accompanying him during a visit to Africa.  

Politicians from opposition parties appear convinced that Erdogan and the AKP will not wait until 2019 to hold presidential elections and will call early elections in 2018. Many of them see the timing of this decree as another step in a revised campaigning timetable with the AKP looking to shore up support.

Erdogan addressing a crowd of supporters during a rally in Istanbul (AFP)

“In the 1.5 years since the coup attempt, not one single case of compensation for material damage or any other similar case has been brought forward against those who took to the streets,” said Kazan.

“And if the immunity is for anyone who has killed a young private conscript during those two days of 15 and 16 July, then it is immunity from murder and that cannot be acceptable in a state of law,” he said. “If we are talking about self-defence, then article 25 of the criminal code sufficiently deals with that.”

Mehtap Tekin, the sister of a military academy student killed on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge – since renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge - on the night of the coup attempt, said the decree placed another obstacle in their efforts to bring her brother’s killer to justice.

“They told us we would be able to seek our rights in the courts but they have shut the door to the court in our face. We have lost our last hope… I call on the authorities not to seek traitors in military academy students and privates; open the doors to the courts and try the killers,” she said in a video message reported by the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.    

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Wednesday said there was nothing wrong with the decree and nothing would be changed.

A presidential adviser was reported as saying that although there was nothing wrong with the decree, a slight rewording remained a possibility.

The arbitrary nature of such decrees with no legal recourse also has critics extremely concerned.

Kazan said the judiciary has seen its independence gradually eroded since 2010 and has now been completely brought under the AKP’s political control.

'I can’t bear to think what will happen. So many will be tortured, held incommunicado for months on end'

Ertugrul Mavioglu, Turkish journalist 

He also said the constitutional court, the highest judicial body in Turkey, had succumbed to fear when it said it was not within the court’s remit to hear complaints arising through state of emergency decrees, shortly after the state of emergency was introduced.

“My hope as a jurist, and I know it is in vain, is that the constitutional court reconsiders its position and says it will deal with such state of emergency cases. Most of the decrees have nothing to do with why the state of emergency was introduced in the first place,” said Kazan.

For Mavioglu, this decree and especially the imposition of uniforms on political prisoners will only result in pain.

“I can’t bear to think what will happen. So many will be tortured, held incommunicado for months on end. It is not just them who should protest this decision. Every single person in society with a conscience needs to speak out now.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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