The story has made it into the Turkish dailies numerous times, written and commented on by many for over three decades, but something happened recently to change the picture completely. In a heart-wrenching drama played out since 1982, the saga of villagers in a small town in the southwestern province of Muğla, whose land stretches to the coast, merging with the relatively cool waters of the Aegean and the warmth of the Mediterranean, represents the dramatic change in the civilian-military balance in the governance of this country.
For years, the civilian authority took the back stage while the powerful military ruled the country, putting pressure on elected governments and Parliament behind the scenes or even intervening directly, which has actually occurred four times since 1960. It was by no means a secret to the outside world nor an unknown phenomenon to the average Turk. But nobody seemed to have the courage to stand up and challenge the undemocratic role played by the Turkish army until recently.
Due to the eight years of rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), a conservative but liberal market-oriented government helped by the Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union, the equation has changed dramatically to the advantage of civilian supremacy. The Ergenekon case, a series of ongoing legal trials of military generals for the coup plots they have been cooking up behind closed doors, practically put an end to the impunity the army had been enjoying.
In a story that was reported in Today’s Zaman last week by veteran correspondent Ercan Yavuz, Parliament’s Complaints Commission, a lesser-known body that has had a low profile for years, finally stood up against the ludicrous demands of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to evacuate the village of Sultaniye, Muğla province, because the military had built a resort for officers nearby. The village is located 18 kilometers from the Aksaz Naval Base Command, hardly presenting a security risk. The military simply wanted to do away with the villagers, who had lived there for centuries, because they wanted to keep the newly built officers’ resort, three kilometers away from the village, as private as possible.
During the villagers’ 30-year uphill battle, public agencies and even courts sided with the military because nobody dared to cross the powerful armed forces. The base wanted to have private beaches for the officers’ corps, and the villagers were simply in the way. Villagers became a nuisance and needed to be dealt with accordingly in the only way the military knew how. It brings to mind the memory of thousands of villages in the southeastern part of the country that were subject to forced evacuations by the military, citing security reasons and terror threats. Well, what a contrast our story presents here.
Parliament should be lauded for standing up for what is right against an egregious demand. Parliament’s Complaints Commission Chairman Yahya Akman is our hero in this bizarre story, which has see many twists over the years. He said, and I quote: “They want to evacuate the village, not to build a naval base, but to free up some space for a beach for the military. We will be on the side of the villagers in this fight.” Akman, whose commission will soon be replaced by an ombudsman’s office, really raised the bar for state agencies responsible for investigation and addressing basic human rights violations.
As he recounted what had happened during the investigation, we were also stunned to learn how investigators from the Court of Accounts, mandated by Parliament to conduct an official inquiry into the matter, were hindered by the Office of the Chief of General Staff for no justifiable reason. Could you imagine that in a democratic country a high judicial body charged with a review of state institutions, including the military, could be prevented from reviewing their case? Though investigators were not permitted to enter military premises, they surveyed the area anyway and reported back to Parliament, saying the villagers have a right to stay and that any evacuation would be a violation of the Constitution. It was determined that the new annex to the naval base had nothing to with security but rather offered recreational activities to officers such as tennis courts and summer cottages.
The commission notified both the Defense Ministry and Office of the Chief of General Staff about the new report and asked for an official inquiry into those who were responsible for preventing the Court of Auditors’ investigators from carrying out their duties. I am sure villagers breathed a sigh of relief as their representatives in Parliament finally sided with the people against the injustice about to be committed by the military. In a way, the case also signifies a glimmer of hope for restoring public confidence in the judiciary in that the higher judicial body did not shy away from issuing a report critical of the military.
Just lend an ear to the village headman, or muhtar, to see how and why so many cases from Turkey have landed on the doorstep of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR ) in Strasbourg. Muhtar Rahim Yıldırm said they were going to the European court if they fail to find a legal remedy for their situation domestically. He also said the Defense Ministry simply ignored about 40 houses when they declared a military zone in the area. If a judicial system, following the military coup, was structured in a way so as to defend the state and state agencies against individuals pursuing their rights, unlike in Western democracies, then we should not be surprised that so many defendants seek their rights in the ECtHR.
That is precisely why Turkey needs a complete overhaul of the judicial system and a change in the mentality of judges and prosecutors. The last referendum helped bring Turkey closer to European standards, but much more needs to be done, not only in law books but also in the way these new laws are interpreted by judges and prosecutors.