The following article is based on the one published in Liberazione, 2 November 2005
Mehmet Tarhan - in military jail since 8 April, on hunger strike since 30 September
Mehmet, gay conscientious objector in the inferno of Turkish jails
Giorgio Riva and Anne Neale - London
On 10 August 2005 Mehmet Tarhan, a gay Turkish anarchist activist and total conscientious objector - he is against all wars and any alternative service to the military - was sentenced to four years for “refusing orders in front of the [military] unit”.
Turkey signed the European Convention of Human Rights, which recognizes conscientious objection, but has never passed a domestic law on conscientious objection or a civilian alternative to military service.
Between 1995 and 2000, Mehmet was working as a vet for the Turkish government near Diyarbakır, in Lice, which in 1993 was practically razed to the ground by the army in an operation against Kurdish guerrillas. Mehmet was seconded to work for the military medical commission. After that experience he resigned his job and declared himself a conscientious objector.
Since 8 April Mehmet Tarhan has been in Sivas military jail. As soon as he arrived, other prisoners, incited by the guards, beat him up brutally, threatened him in front of his lawyer, and forced him to call his sister, telling her to bring some clothes, shirts and shoes, which the guards then passed on to his aggressors. Mr Tarhan went on his first hunger strike - for 28 days - winning a visit by civilian doctors and a cell of his own to safeguard his security.
On 9 June the military judge released him, but, since the military consider him a soldier, they brought him back to the barracks, where a cycle of detention and legal proceedings immediately started.
During his trial on 10 August, the prosecutor and judge insisted that he should accept exemption from military service on grounds of his homosexuality, which the military define as a “rotten” illness. Mehmet Tarhan refused this “opportunity” – insisting that it is the militaristic system which is rotten. And that it is rotten is illustrated by the “evidence” demanded by the military to prove homosexuality: in a practice which is arbitrary but well-known, military doctors can insist on a manual anal examination plus visual proof such as a photograph (or even, as his lawyer told us, a video) of an act of sexual penetration. The person penetrated is the one defined as gay, the one penetrating is not. This is the equivalent of the notorious “virginity test”, which the Turkish police and army have used for decades as a pretext to perpetrate rape and other sexual violence against women, in particular Kurdish women.
Mehmet should be eligible to come out of jail at the end of 2006. He will, however, still be considered a soldier. He could immediately be brought back to the barracks and, if he disobeys orders, tried and sentenced again. This cycle could repeat itself until Turkish law considers him too old to serve, possibly up to the age of 55. Mehmet is now 27.
His lawyer has appealed, but the date of the hearing is not yet known.
The prison is run like a barracks: Mehmet, who insists he is a civilian, refuses to accept military discipline and, as a punishment, is often put into solitary confinement – locked up in a small cell and often denied the statutory “air hour”. His hair and beard must be cut – by force if necessary. On 30 September Mehmet Tarhan refused the barber and was attacked by the guards. Ali Düler, another prisoner who came to his aid, was also attacked. In a telephone call from prison, the same day, Mr Tarhan said:
"Today, at 3pm, non-commissioned officer Hilmi Savluk, accompanied by three or four guards, told me that my hair had to be cut. Then seven or eight people using force and torture cut my hair and beard but they could not cut my moustache. A friend from the ward also faced a harsh intervention from the guards. Following this ’hair cut’ torture, there is pain in my head, in both my hands and in my left arm - because they stood on it - also pain in my left foot, and injuries and bruises on my arm and legs. I cannot turn my neck because of pain in both my face and neck. "
The other prisoner, who was wounded on his head, was visited by civilian doctors. Mehmet was “examined” only by military doctors who showed up in their fatigues, hung around for ten minutes and said he was OK.
Since 30 September Mehmet Tarhan has been on hunger strike. He demands punishment of the guards who attacked him, a visit by civilian doctors and the nutritional supplements necessary for his hunger strike.
His case is well known among activists in the various grassroots movements across the country: anti-militarist, anarchist, women’s, lesbian and gay and human rights organisations. He is the tip of an antimilitaristic iceberg: there are 350,000-500,000 draft refusers in Turkey, many of whom are Kurds who refuse to attack their own people in the South East. They refuse to attack villages, to torture, rape and kill women, children and men and to fire into crowds of peaceful demonstrators. Many refuse because of the harsh military living conditions – paid a pittance and sent far away from home in a vast country where the military presence is ubiquitous: in the cities as well as at the many checkpoints on roads in the remotest rural areas. The whole society is controlled, militarised and at war.
The Initiative of Solidarity with Mehmet Tarhan www.mehmettarhan.com includes a majority of women. The lawyers who initially took up his case are also women. Here, as everywhere, women form the back-bone of the anti-war movement and are the most determined and effective organizers for justice for their loved ones. Cindy Sheehan in the US and Rose Gentle in the UK, both mothers of young soldiers killed in Iraq, are the most visible examples of this.
Mehmet’s mother, Hatice, in spite of her ill-health and eviction from her house in Istanbul, never tires of repeating that she is very proud of her son’s stand. The family has now lost two men’s wages, since Yusuf, Mehmet’s younger brother, has been drafted.
Every two weeks Emine, Mehmet’s sister, embarks on the tortuous 900-km trip from Istanbul to Sivas (spending 14 hours each way on a bus two nights running) in order to see Mehmet and bring him news and support from the movement. She rarely manages to have physical contact with her brother, who is almost invisible because of bars and barbed wire even in the visiting area, where there are always two guards present. Since Mehmet cannot write abroad, Emine brings back crucial information for the many demonstrations in Turkey and around the world.
Mehmet’s four-year sentence is a signal for the international movement for lesbian and gay rights and against the war. Like many lesbian/gay/bisexual grassroots people, he rejects the “equality” advocated by some in the lesbian and gay movement: to be able to be recruited and enjoy the “equal right” to kill. Integration into a military which bombs, rapes and tortures is not a victory anyone should celebrate.
Payday and Wages Due Lesbians are publicising Mehmet Tarhan’s case as widely as we are able, including by organizing international protests outside Turkish embassies and consulates in London, Venice and New York, and on Payday’s website www.refusingtokill.net.
Answering a letter from Caroline Lucas MEP, the Turkish Embassy in London justified Mehmet’s sentence, saying: “Despite the fact that ... conscientious objection is recognized in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, there are EU member States which still do not recognize it.” Mehmet’s lawyers’ appeal is to compel Turkey to accept international human rights standards. Mehmet’s case is therefore crucial to establish conscientious objectors’ rights not just in Turkey but also in Greece, Finland and Cyprus in the EU, and lesbian and gay rights in Turkey and everywhere.
The Turkish authorities must know that the world is watching. Many EU members are hostile to Turkey’s entry because of their anti-Muslim racism. Those who are in favour want to undermine our human rights further and add a US stooge to the allies that Berlusconi and Blair already have in Europe. The campaign in support of Mehmet Tarhan is essential to maintaining our civil rights in Europe, which are under threat today from many quarters.
A day of action on 9 December is being organized. A number of MEPs have expressed interest and Vittorio Agnoletto has tabled a parliamentary question in Strasbourg. We urge everyone to put pressure on their MEPs to intervene with the Turkish authorities, since his hunger strike has reached a critical point and Mehmet is likely to be subjected to more violence by the guards when his hair and beard next fall due for cutting.
Along with Mehmet, his family and his supporters in Turkey we are demanding and defending our human rights: the right to conscientious objection, the right to refuse to kill, the right to sexual choice, the right to live in a world free of war and dictatorship, a world which invests in caring, not killing.
Payday and Wages Due Lesbians insist that all Mehmet Tarhan’s demands be immediately granted, so that he can end his hunger strike, and demand that Mehmet and all conscientious objectors are freed.
Anne Neale is a member of Wages Due Lesbians, an international multi-racial network campaigning for the economic, legal and human rights of lesbian/bi-sexual firstname.lastname@example.org, www.allwomencount.net