ISTANBUL — Violent conduct within the Turkish military was long considered a taboo subject. But the military leadership is now facing serious accusations. More than 900 Turkish soldiers have committed suicide over the past 10 years, and a growing number of families of suicide victims are taking the issue to court.
Last March, a group of families protested outside parliament over army bullying. Many attending were parents whose sons committed suicide or died at the hands of their fellow soldiers.
Kenan and Gulsen Polat show me their son Murat’s room. They say it's just as he left it when he went to do his 15-month military service eight years ago. Above the carefully made bed hangs his photo. It’s now a memorial shrine. As his mother explains, Murat didn't die in combat, but at the hands of his so-called comrades.
"He was killed in the barracks by other soldiers, " said Gulsen Polat. "They stomped him to death. His body was completely covered in boot marks. It was terrible. She says that he was accused of stealing and was subjected to this terrible beating as part of an interrogation on the orders of a senior officer.
Observers say speaking out over physical and verbal abuse in the army was a taboo. But the army is no longer untouchable, with hundreds of senior officers convicted of plotting against the government. The group Platform for Soldiers' Rights was set up by former conscripts to give a voice to victims of army bullying and is campaigning for independent scrutiny of the military.
Group member Yigit Aksakoglu says bullying is institutionalized.
"Soldiers face the choice either of taking part in the physical and verbal abuse or becoming a victim. It is systematic; it's part of the culture of the army. This has to be broken. We are talking about 400,000 men being put in this situation each year. We need an independent body that people can file complaints with so the problem can be properly investigated," said Aksakoglu.
The Turkish Parliament's Human Rights Commission earlier this year highlighted the problem, revealing that more than 900 soldiers had committed suicide in the past decade. The military says there is an internal mechanism to deal with the problem. But retired Brigadier General Haldun Solmazturk claims the Turkish armed forces' chief of staff doesn’t recognize the magnitude of the problem
"As an infantry officer who served in Turkish units for over 30 years, I believe it's one of the most serious problems in [the] Turkish army, [the] bullying culture. It has to be recognized; it’s vital," said Solmazturk.
Solmazturk spent much of his career on the frontlines of the fight against the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. But he says his toughest battle was trying to stamp out bullying. Although he admits that in order to root it out, a disturbing part of the Turkish character needs to be addressed.
"This was the most difficult area I had to tackle, to change the culture they brought from the families, from [their] neighborhood, the factories [where] they worked - the culture of bullying. They take it for granted, the right, the authority - others who are weaker, who are younger, and who are less able to defend themselves. This is a major problem in Turkish culture, I have to accept this," he said.
For the Polat family such changes will come too late for their son. What they want now, says Kenan Polat, is justice for their son Murat.
"Until those senior officers responsible for my son’s death are brought to justice, and my son is recognized as a martyr, we will not rest. We want justice for our son’s memory and that no other parent has to go through what we are going through," said Kenan Polat.
The Kenan’s are seeking justice at the European Court of Human Rights, where they have filed a case. They hope a victory there will force the army to face the bullying and finally address the problem.