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Human rights abuses continue in Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had once dominated south-eastern Europe and most of the Middle East, as well as what is now Turkey.

The first president was Kemal Ataturk, the only important Turkish general never to be defeated in World War 1, when the Ottoman Empire had sided with Germany.

By the time of his death in 1938, Ataturk had introduced major reforms in the country, and stopped Britain, France and Greece from seizing Turkish territory. However, Turkey’s Greek minority was ethnically cleansed and a Kurdish rebellion was brutally suppressed. Also, Ataturk never held a free election and was no democrat. Both the positive and negative aspects of modern Turkey have a lot to do with Ataturk’s legacy.

Turkish politics have been dominated by the armed forces, partly because Ataturk was himself a general. There have been three military coups in the history of modern Turkey. The first in 1960 actually increased political freedom in the country, but the 1971 and 1980 military coups resulted in mass arrests, especially of left-wingers and supporters of Kurdish aspirations. About one Turkish citizen in five is Kurdish, and Turkish citizens who claim asylum in countries like Britain are generally Kurds.

A civilian government returned to power in 1983 but the army generals have never gone far away and reserve the right to interfere if the government takes any controversial steps. In the late 1990s, the army made an elected Islamist government resign by threatening to stage another coup.

Torture and other human rights abuses are common in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested after the 1980 military coup, and most of them suffered some form of torture or ill-treatment. Hundreds were killed.

In 1984 the PKK started an armed rebellion against Turkish rule. Over the next 15 years, large parts of the Kurdish south-east were devastated by fighting and Turkish reprisals. Many Kurds moved to shantytowns on the edges of Turkish cities or claimed asylum abroad. Torture, murder and disappearances took place everywhere in Turkey, not just in the south-east.

Turkey is a member of several Western institutions, including NATO, and Western criticism of Turkish government actions has been limited as a result. For example, the USA and Britain approved of the 1980 military coup because there was a fear that Turkey might be about to have a revolution like the one that had just happened in neighbouring Iran, and later they banned the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Turkey has thousands of political prisoners, a few of whom have been under arrest since the 1980 coup, but most were arrested in the 1990s and more recently, under the Struggle Against Terrorism law. Twenty-eight prisoners were killed in December 2000 after starting a hunger strike opposing solitary confinement, and dozens more have died since then, the most recent on May 26, 2005.

Terrorism in Turkey need not be violent - it can be speaking Kurdish in public, it can be showing interest in the rights of people the Turkish state considers terrorist, and it can be a matter of who you associate with and what publications you read.

The Turkish government is trying to join the European Union, and claims to have improved its human rights record. The Sandra Bakutz case suggests it has not…