Mehmet Tarhan, gay Kurdish conscientious objector, was released from military prison on 9 March. The highest military court of appeal in Turkey (the Military Court of Cassation) ruled that he had been punished enough for his “crime”. His crime was refusing to kill.
Mr Tarhan had been in prison since 9 April 2005: serving a sentence of four years. The Turkish army tried to break his resistance with abuse and torture, he was often put in solitary confinement and twice went on hunger strike to win equal treatment with other prisoners.
After the court’s judgement, Mehmet Tarhan was taken to the recruitment office where he was ordered to present himself to his military unit. He refused to obey and instead went home to his family.
“It’s important to be able to touch each other and maintain communication. There has been much strain on me throughout this ordeal, but if we can maintain this solidarity we can gain the strength to continue the struggle and put pressure on public opinion.” Mehmet Tarhan
His release is a victory first of all for his determination to refuse the army’s “offer” of avoiding the draft by allowing himself to be classified as “ill” because he is gay. He refused to submit to an anal examination, the equivalent of the notorious “virginity test”, used for decades by the Turkish police and army as a pretext to perpetrate rape and other sexual violence against women, Kurdish and also Turkish.
“In fact, all women in Turkey are persecuted, even in high schools, where the head is entitled by law to carry out virginity checks. The Court of Cassation has now ruled that forced physical examination is a violation of human rights and the integrity of the person. It is ironic that the ruling has come in relation to a man rather than a woman -- such is the patriarchal structure of our society -- but it is a big victory for women too. Women’s struggle against virginity checks contributed to victory in my case, and now there is a precedent which can be referred to by women.” Mehmet Tarhan
Mehmet’s release was also won by his mother and sister who have been working non-stop for this day despite ill health and financial deprivation from the loss of two wages, Mehmet’s and Mehmet’s brother Yusuf’s, who was drafted into the army at the same time.
“The morning after Mehmet’s release, when I woke up I had to check he was really there. Of course there is still a risk that he could be sent back to prison, but today we went for a stroll by the sea and it’s just great to see him.” Emine Tarhan, Mehmet’s sister.
“I couldn’t sleep for many nights, but now happiness is mixed with all sorts of emotions. I take 15 tablets a day and that’s what keeps me going, without them I couldn’t stand up, but of course I can stand up today.” Hatice Tarhan, Mehmet’s mother.
Mehmet Tarhan’s release is a victory for the 350-500,000 draft evaders throughout Turkey and for prisoners in military jails and their families – many of whom have indicated their support for him.
His resistance has also inspired Payday and other organizations to pull together an unprecedented network -- anti-war activists, refuseniks, anti-militarists, anarchists, women’s, lesbian and gay and human rights campaigners in at least 13 countries. International protests alerted a number of MEPs to raise Mehmet Tarhan’s case in the European Parliament and in turn warned the Turkish authorities that their repressive actions would continue to cause them trouble. A motion was also circulated in the Scottish Parliament in Mehmet Tarhan’s support.
The army could again try to force Mehmet Tarhan to serve. However, a recent victory at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) won by another conscientious objector, Osman Murat Ulke, declared Turkey guilty of inflicting “degrading treatment” for using the threat of, and actual, repeated imprisonment. The ECHR described the “clandestine life” that a conscientious objector was compelled to adopt in Turkey as “civil death”.
International vigilance must prevent any further persecution of Mr Tarhan, Mr Ulke, an the other 80 men who have declared themselves conscientious objectors.
Turkey is one of almost 100 countries which imposes conscription and one of the 70 which does not recognize conscientious objection. Turkey must be forced to adhere to the EHCR’s guidance and other international rulings, recognising the right to conscientious objection; and must abolish from its military regulations the definition of homosexuality as an illness