Jan 31, 1999

In Turkey, tyranny and terror deface a democracy: [City Edition] | By Jerry Meldon | published in the Boston Globe Jan 31 1999


Consider these scenes from a country that the United States considers a democracy:

A Mercedes careering down a remote highway in November 1996 collides head-on with a tractor. The victims in the fatal accident turn out to be strange bedfellows: a policeman, an underworld fugitive, a beauty queen, and a politician who controls a private militia hired by the government to fight separatist Kurds. The discovery of them together speaks volumes about the alliances that govern the nation.

Skip ahead to 1998. Fifty women march peacefully -- as they have each weekend for three years -- bearing photos of "disappeared" spouses and sons. Police suddenly close in, brutalizing several "Saturday Mothers" and arresting 30 of them. A human rights official lodges a protest and is promptly jailed, along with 157 others.

These two scenes might suggest Iraq or another certified police state. But they took place in Turkey, a country described as a republican parliamentary democracy. Not coincidentally, it is also a key ally and key beneficiary of US aid.

Geography, plus Ankara's earlier anticommunism and the secularism it enforces today despite an overwhelming Islamic populace, explain Washington's generosity. Turkey's neighbors include Iran, Syria, oil-rich nations of the former Soviet Union, and Iraq. US aircraft fly over the region from Turkish bases.

But policies based on pragmatism alone undermine our credibility as a beacon of democracy. Before continuing to embrace Turkey, we would do well to consider the reality.

For 75 years, Turkey has been in the grip of its armed forces and the generally corrupt politicians who govern when the military allows. Turkey fights an ongoing war against Kurdish separatists, sinking $8 billion a year into the effort, even though -- with an inflation rate of 100 percent -- it can ill-afford to do so.

Last fall, Turkey raised the Middle East tension level by threatening Kurdish guerilla warlord Abdullah Ocalan's protectors in Syria, a country already inflamed by Turkish diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and increasing military links to Israel. Meanwhile, the man serving as prime minister until April is the same official who headed a 1974 administration that ignited a war with Greece over the island of Cyprus.

If all that is not Byzantine enough, there is the continuing corruption of the government. After the 1996 accident that revealed the alliance of the government and the underworld, finance minister Mehmet Agar (who had met with the occupants of the car just before the crash) was charged with aiding terrorists and underworld hitmen. The ensuing inquiry led the government to admit that its security officials were responsible for many of the unsolved homicides and disappearances that have puzzled investigators for decades. It also acknowledged that secret police employed right-wing death squads and narco-criminal gangs to kidnap and murder Kurds and other dissidents.

That band, known as the Grey Wolves, murdered hundreds of public officials, journalists, students, lawyers and Kurds. The Grey Wolves were handled, Ankara now admits, by a unit within the Army's Special Warfare Department which shared a building in Ankara with the US Military Aid Mission.

The gangster who was killed in the Mercedes crash, it turned out, was on the Turkish government payroll. (He was also an accomplice of the would-be assassin who shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square in 1981.)

It is against this dark history that government-sponsored bloodshed continues today. Last March, five Turkish policeman were convicted of beating a journalist to death. Last May, two men shot Akin Birdal, the founding president of the Turkish human rights association and a longtime critic of Turkey's war against the Kurds. Among those implicated in his murder were a military officer and members of state-sponsored rightist squads.

Last summer, French police arrested Turkish Mafia boss Alattin Cakici, who was wanted in Turkey for extortion and murder. Police seized tapes of his conversations with Turkish cabinet ministers and a diplomatic passport he received from Turkish intelligence.

The "Year of Human Rights" has just ended in Turkey. It would be better if US support for the country ended, too.

Jerry Meldon is chairman of the chemical engineering department at Tufts University.


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