Working as a jail torturer ruined my life

Patrick Cockburn on the former soldier who has joined the political prisoners he tortured in Turkey's Mamak prison by suing the generals who led a regime of terror

Patrick Cockburn
Wednesday 15 February 2012 01:00 GMT

A former Turkish soldier, Dogan Eslik, is suing the generals who seized power in Turkey in a military coup in 1980 and tortured hundreds of thousands of people. He claims his experiences in Ankara's dreaded Mamak Prison dehumanised him, turned him into a monster, and have effectively ruined his life. He joins thousands of other complainants filing charges against those they hold responsible for torture and murder.

What makes Mr Eslik's legal action different from the others is that they are suing because they suffered torture while he is one of those who inflicted it. Today he is full of remorse at his past career as a torturer. Claiming he was compelled by threats of being beaten himself, he says that his emotional well-being has been permanently destroyed, he has received psychiatric treatment, and he was so traumatised that he has never been able to marry.

Called up to do his military service, Mr Eslik was made a prison warden in Mamak Prison in 1982 and received special training from officers in methods of inflicting pain. He is now filing charges against the retired Generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, the leaders of the junta which staged the coup and established a reign of terror in Turkey at its most intense between 1980 and 1983.

"My reason for filing charges is because I was stopped by the junta from serving in the military," Mr Eslik told the Zaman newspaper. "They broke our mind, our will and made us beat inmates like animals."

The history of barbaric punishments inflicted by the state on opponents continues to mark Turkish society. Of the four military coups since 1960, the most repressive was that of 12 September 1980. A quarter of a million people were arrested and tortured according to Amnesty International, while Turkish human rights organisations say the true number is two or three times as great.

They list 37 different techniques used by the torturers including electric shocks, whipping of the feet, hanging by the arms and legs and the use of high-pressure water. Some 419 people are suspected of being tortured to death in custody in 15 years after the coup and thousands more were maimed for life. Many disappeared and their bones are still being found in secret cemeteries.

Torturers have begun to admit what they did, though often claiming it was under duress. Kamil Altiman, a private soldier who was a warden in Mamak, says "many young people, intellectuals and writers were jailed. My friends and I only carried out the orders we were given, but we never supported torture."

One victim, Yasar Yildirim, recalls how the chief warden at Mamak ordered prisoners into the yard and then set German Shepherd dogs to attack them. "The torture lasted for 45 minutes," says Mr Yildirim. "What disturbed me most was the fact that the prison warden gave the order for the dogs to attack us as he was sipping is tea."

With so many of the perpetrators and victims of torture still alive, memories of past repression add hatred and fear to contemporary Turkish politics. The army has not wholly abdicated its political role. "Demilitarisation will take a long time," says Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at Bahcesehir University. "It has taken 30 years in Spain which in many ways is similar to Turkey."

A difference between the two countries is that in Turkey many are unconvinced that the brutal repression of the past is ancient history. Army generals are accused of plotting a coup as recently as 2009. Murat Belge, professor of comparative literature at Bilgi University, argues that popular opposition is still not strong enough to prevent a fifth military takeover of the Turkish state, though he wonders if the army still has the organisation to carry out a coup.

He sees hopeful signs that at least some senior officers "don't like the way the army behaved with the Kurds – all those murders and criminal actions – and want a cleaner state." He believes that revelations about secret military meetings and plots to plant bombs in mosques as a provocation show there are those in the officer corps struggling to prevent another coup by leaking information to the press or the police.

But many doubt that the old ruling élite of army, security forces and judiciary ever left power, despite the three electoral victories of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002. They see signs of the continuing influence of this "deep state" everywhere. The most glaring of these came on 17 January when a court decided, ignoring evidence to the contrary, that the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 had been the work of a few young men and had not involved state personnel.

In power for almost a decade, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a decreasing incentive to eliminate "the deep state", punish the perpetrators of past crimes, and cut back the army's independent power. The military and the AKP seem to have reached an accommodation. "Reform is only half done and that is very dangerous," says Professor Aktar. He fears that the security forces are not permanently defanged "but the government is happy because it knows that the military are not going to act against [it]."

Past progress on human rights was significant. The AKP came into power 10 years ago saying there would be "zero tolerance for torture". Allegations are still made, but the incidence of mistreatment is nothing like it was previously. On the other hand, 99 journalists, 60 per cent Kurdish, are in jail along with 500 students and 3,000 Kurdish politicians, activists and protesters.

Guilt by association, along with collective punishment, continues to fill jail cells. Though these tactics are demonstrably counter-effective, the Turkish state is once again acting as the recruiting sergeant for the insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an organisation that looked a few years ago as if it was being marginalised. The war in Kurdish south-east Turkey is heating up again and incidents like the killing of 34 Kurdish villagers, 19 of them children, by Turkish air force jets near the Iraqi border on 28 December, brought Kurdish anger to boiling point.

For the moment, the prospects for democratic change are not good and reforms may never be more than half completed. Ece Temelkuran, a journalist who wrote about the 19 Kurdish children killed in the air strike, was forced out of her job. Mr Erdogan threatened those who used the word "massacre" to describe what had happened. Free expression is under sustained attack.

Not all developments are negative. Torturers and torture victims now speak of what happened in the past. Some of the perpetrators are being pursued. But the apparatus of state repressionwas never dismantled and is once again showing alarming signs of life.

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