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Turkey Considers Allowing Conscientious Objection to Military Service

  • Dorian Jones

A soldier helps a girl to cross a street after an earthquake in Ercis, Turkey October 24, 2011.

A soldier helps a girl to cross a street after an earthquake in Ercis, Turkey October 24, 2011.

Conscientious objectors to Turkey's national army service face years in jail, often brutalized by fellow inmates for being traitors. But the government, under pressure from the European court of human rights, has indicated that it may allow conscientious objection. The issue has provoked a storm of controversy.

Street parties are a common occurrence for young men heading off for their obligatory 18 months in the army.

And many regard serving in the military as an honor, as this man explains.

He says he is so excited to go, and he thanks God he does not have any fear of dying. He says the biggest reward in the army is to die there, and be a martyr, and that is why he has no fear. He says he is only afraid of making his family sad.

But a handful of conscientious objectors who challenge such patriotic views face the full force of the Turkish state.

In central Istanbul, several hundred protesters demonstrate against the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.

This protester says anyone who refuses to do military service faces a lifetime of persecution.

"So he is being arrested, then he is released because he has served his sentence," he said. "Then he is picked up by the military police again, claiming he is running away from the army. And he says he is not running away from the army, he is just refusing. And he gets puts in jail again, and he is tried again. This goes on and on. This is [a] terrible vicious circle because it means a life sentence. He can never come back home."

The repeated imprisonment of conscientious objectors has resulted in Turkey being in violation of rules by the European Court of Human Rights on numerous occasions.

Mehmet Tarhan is one of the country's most famous conscientious objectors serving numerous prison sentences, and still facing the prospect of further jail time. While he welcomes the government moves, he remains cautious.

He says the European Council gave a deadline for Turkey to introduce reform until December. Turkey kept saying to the council that it is making "preparations" every three months. So he says we will see the outcome of the last five years of preparations.

Those against allowing conscientious objection could bring the measure to a halt.

The leader of the far-right Nationalist Action party, Devlet Bahceli, launched an attack on the government, accusing it of betraying the army as it continues to fight against the Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

He says that there can not be a more tactless behavior than a minister bringing to the agenda conscientious objection at a time when the Turkish Army is trying to protect the unity of the territory by fighting an excessive terror.

The minister of defense is on record as saying he strongly opposes the reform. With conscientious objection recognized across Europe and even national service seen increasingly as outdated, observers say it seems Turkey is swimming against the tide.

Political columnist Murat Belge says reform is key to modernizing Turkish society, although he warns it involves challenging one of its most sacred traditions.

"The Turkish state was formed by the efforts of the military, so we all have to be soldiers," said Belge. "But already as Turks, we are born soldiers. One after the other, they all keep saying the same thing. This is the ideology."

Both sides now seem to be digging in for what is expected to be a bitter and protracted struggle. Observers say the outcome is being seen as a key test of the government's commitment to modernizing Turkish society.