Turkey’s Dreyfus Affair (of Sorts)

On October 21, 2007, after an ambush on a military outpost in an Eastern province of Turkey, eight soldiers of the Turkish army were captured by PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) militants and were taken across the border to Northern Iraq where they were held captive for two weeks before being released.  Release, however, didn’t bring these eight young men relief.  For no sooner were they let go by their captors than they were arrested by the Turkish military, even before they could meet their families and celebrate their safe homecoming against the odds.  Twelve other Turkish soldiers were killed in the ambush, alongside thirty PKK militants.

The military prosecutor laid out the grounds for arrest of the “undead” soldiers in a voluminous 19-page indictment.  Among the six charges were:“disobeying the orders,” “collaborating with the enemy,” and “deserting the army.”  The indictment asserts that “personal threat and danger, no matter how grave, is no excuse for the dereliction of (military) duty,” the implication being that the military authorities would rather have these soldiers dead than have them surrender to the enemy.  Not all the soldiers under arrest are facing the same sentence, however.  While seven of them are being tried for sentences ranging from 3-5 years, Private Ramazan Yüce might end up spending the rest of his life in jail.  Why the huge discrepancy?  The short answer: because of his Kurdish origins.  What follows is the longer answer.

During their detention at the PKK camp, the soldiers were filmed and the recordings were broadcast over Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite station.  Much to the dismay of warmongering Turkish nationalists, however, the footage is not an Al-Qaeda-style “snuff” video, but instead shows soldiers going about their lives, sitting casually among bushes, sipping from tea cups.  Although all the soldiers appear in this manner— and to be doing as well as they can under these extraordinary circumstances — the aforementioned indictment singles out Ramazan Yuce for “interacting too cozily with the terrorists, almost to the point where it appears as if he is enjoying their company.”  “Cozily” here is a codeword for “conversing in Kurdish,” which is what must really have attracted the ire of the prosecutor and those on whose behalf he is acting.  Adding insult to injury (to Turkish national pride), Yüce was also caught on camera calling for a peaceful resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict — in Kurdish to boot.  As a result, unlike his fellow soldiers, he is being charged on all six counts including “engaging in propaganda in support of the separatist terrorist organization.”

Yüce’s impeccable record during his military service, however, is making it difficult for the prosecutor to make the case against him.  Yüce’s been awarded by his superiors numerousletters of merit for distinguished performance, which is why he was entrusted with as crucial a duty as thermal-camera operation and radio interception in the first place.  Moreover, ironically, it was his ability to speak Kurdish that made it possible for him to operate as a radio interceptor.  And yet, this asset became a major liability since his capture by the PKK.  In order to frame Yüce as a “mole” in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the military prosecutor has gone to extraordinary lengthsandpeppered his indictment with preposterous allegations.  For instance, it is alleged in the indictment that a couple days before the incident, Yüce was overheard saying that “Our [Kurdish] girls are better looking.  As soon as I am discharged I’ll go join them on the mountains.  I’m a terrorist.”  As one Turkish columnist duly noted, if Yüce had indeed uttered these kinds of statements within earshot of other soldiers in the virulently nationalist military environment of the barracks, he should be sent to a mental institution to check for his mental competence to stand trial.

The trials and tribulations of Ramazan Yüce bring to mind those of another soldier from another geography, in another time.  A promising young artillery officer in the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus was abruptly arrested in 1894 for passing military secrets to Germans.  Although the accusation of treason hung on nothing more than a slip of paper found in the trash can of a German military attaché’s office in Paris with handwriting resembling that of Dreyfus’, his Jewish background sufficed to make Dreyfus a suspect in the anti-Semitic milieu of fin de siècle France.  Like Yüce’s, Dreyfus’s ethnicity trumped all his credentials; like Yüce, he was tried for a lifetime sentence.  In the end, Dreyfus was found guilty, discharged in a humiliating public ceremony and sentenced to life in prison.  But thanks to the valiant efforts of, among others, the eminent novelist Émile Zola, the case eventually came under review and Dreyfus was acquitted — but only after serving five years in prison.  It took another five years for him to be completely exonerated.  Justice was restored — if it can still be called that — only because this story captured the public attention in a very remarkable way.  So much so that Dreyfus became a household name in France and the public was visibly polarized over the issue.  What could very well have vanished into the dustbin of history as another anonymous case of ethnic discrimination thus became “L’affaire Dreyfus.”

As for Ramazan Yüce. . . .  One hundred years from now, we won’t be reading an encyclopedia entry for “L’affaire Yüce,” that’s for sure.  But let’s hope Yüce’s predicament will resonate with the Turkish public and he will eventually be vindicated.

Who will be Yüce’s Zola, though?  One name that leaps to mind is Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.  Pamuk is no stranger to the Kurdish question.  Back in the late 1990s, in solidarity with Ozgur Gundem (a newspaper whose offices were being bombed for its pro-Kurdish coverage), he sold the newspaper on the street.  More recently, he told a Swiss newspaper that “1 million Armenians and 30 thousand Kurds were killed in these lands.”  He’s paid dearly for that statement.  In 2006, he was tried for “insulting Turkishness,” and although the case was later dropped, Pamuk has been living under the threat of an attempt on his life ever since — of the sort that left the Turkish journalist of Armenian descent, Hrant Dink, slain in January last year.

So, while the prospects don’t look very bright for Ramazan Yüce, he might at least take some comfort in knowing that everyone is equal before the Turkish law, a Kurdish soldier and a Turkish Nobel laureate alike.

Kenan Erçel, a Turkish citizen, is a graduate student in economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  He is also a member of the editorial collective of the journal Rethinking Marxism.

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