Background Briefing

The Implications for Human Rights of Military Influence in the Political Arena

The most recent efforts by the military to interfere in politics and exert pressure on the democratic process are a matter of concern to all who have supported human rights reform in Turkey in recent years, and are particularly worrying in the polarized political climate of the pre-election period.

The military’s growing influence in politics is evident in three statements issued between April and June. At a press conference on April 12, General Chief of Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt emphasized the need for a military incursion into northern Iraq in order to destroy the base of the PKK, and strongly called into question the AKP government’s secularist credentials.3  Then, unsigned memoranda were posted on the website of the Office of the General Chief of Staff on the night of April 27, after the first round of voting in parliament for a new president (as noted above), and again on June 8,4 emphasizing what it regarded as the deep threats posed by religious fundamentalism and terrorism, asserting the military’s secularist and Turkish nationalist stance, and issuing veiled warnings to the AKP government. 

The timing of the April 27 statement raises particularly serious questions about the military’s influence in the political arena.  As already noted, after the first round of voting, which was boycotted by the opposition CHP and the Motherland Party (ANAP), 361 votes were cast (of which 357 supported Abdullah Gül).  That same day, the CHP applied to the Constitutional Court seeking annulment of the vote for lack of a two-thirds quorum. The military’s strongly worded message was made public the same evening that the petition was submitted to the court and came just days before the Constitutional Court was due to rule on the case. 

The court’s decision upholding the CHP’s petition was disputed by most jurists who commented on it in Turkey, who pointed out that no such quorum requirement could be found in the Turkish constitution. The timing of the military’s message created a perception of inappropriate influence on the court and, given Turkey’s long-standing problems with the independence of the judiciary, lends credence to suggestions that the court’s decision was not arrived at in an impartial or independent way. 

The third statement by the Office of the Chief of Staff on June 8 was also disturbing because it referred to human rights defenders and others critical of state authorities as synonymous with supporters of terrorist organizations.  It stated, “It is now time to start to see the true face of the individuals and organizations in the country and outside that at every opportunity use lofty human values like peace, freedom and democracy to screen the terrorist organization.” The statement suggests that human rights defenders are working for the PKK, condemns critics of “the national and unitary structure” of the country, and calls on “the great Turkish nation” to demonstrate its “mass oppositional reflex” to terrorism.5 In the tense pre-election climate, against a backdrop of rising political violence, and in a period that has witnessed a number of violent attacks or threats of attacks against minority representatives and others perceived as critical of state policies, such a statement risks being interpreted by some as tacit state encouragement for violence against those perceived as not sufficiently loyal to the Turkish state.

For the population of Turkey such interventions by the military are alarmingly familiar—Turkey has a history of military interference in civilian politics, including four coups since its founding as a modern republic. Turkish citizens remember well the serious human rights violations that followed the 1980 coup. More recently, in what has been called the “post-modern coup,” the military issued a memorandum in 1997 that resulted in the collapse of the coalition government then in power and the eventual closure of the conservative-religious Welfare Party. Given this history, the recent statements by the Office of the Chief of Staff are especially troubling to those who support genuine human rights and democratic reform in Turkey, regardless of whether they are supporters or critics of the AKP government.

It is unclear at this point what the longer-term impact of military influence in Turkey might be, whether it will be sustained, and the extent to which it will have wider repercussions for human rights reforms. However, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the military’s overt pressure over the issue  of the presidential elections has interfered with the democratic process, and takes the position that in a democracy there is no place for military pressure on an elected government. The role of the military is to serve the people’s choice of elected leaders, not to substitute its judgment on political matters for the will of the people.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned that military influence in this period may have had a chilling effect on free speech and press freedom (see discussion on freedom of expression below). One recent case, in particular, underscores the pressure for self-censorship in the current environment in Turkey, in which the military does not hesitate to make its views and expectations known, and state institutions function to reinforce those views and to defend the interests and reputation of the military. 

In late April 2007 the Turkish military prosecutor initiated a wide-ranging police search of the offices of the news and current affairs magazine Nokta, which had gained a reputation for pursuing serious investigative journalism and had recently run three investigative stories about the military. During a three-day search of Nokta’s offices, on April 13-15, all of the magazine’s documents and computer hard disks were copied.

The military prosecutor issued the search warrant on the basis of an article published by Nokta on April 5 examining alleged links between the Office of the Chief of Staff and some civil society organizations.6 This article was of great topical interest given that large anti-government rallies were then being organized by some civil society organizations. Nokta reproduced, as the main source for the report, a 2004 document alleged to come from the intelligence department of the Office of the Chief of Staff that revealed the military’s links with some civil society organizations and universities, and Nokta questioned whether in the present situation there were also elements of civil society that were not really “civilian.”

Moreover, during a press conference on April 12, one day before the start of the police raid, General Chief of Staff Büyükanıt had referred to reports by Nokta (although he did not mention the magazine by name) of alleged plans for two military coups in 2004.7 In its March 29 issue, Nokta had published parts of a journal allegedly kept by former Naval Commander Özden Örnek describing these plans.8 Without refuting such allegations, the chief of staff denied that evidence of such plans could be found in the archives of the Office of the Chief of Staff. 

Immediately after the police raids, Nokta’s editor, Alper Görmüş, and the magazine’s journalists stressed that they were committed to continue working despite the pressure they were under and that they were prepared to defend themselves fully in court if prosecuted.9 However, on April 21, Alper Görmüş announced that the magazine’s owner, Ayhan Durgun, had decided to stop publication and close Nokta down.10  Although he made no formal statement, Ayhan Durgun was widely quoted in the press as having said that he felt desperate and unable to stand the “slander.”11 No other backer was found for the magazine.

Following the magazine’s closure, Alper Görmüş was charged with insult and libel (under articles 267 and 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, TPC), and faces a possible prison sentence of over six years, for publishing the excerpts of the alleged journal of Naval Commander Örnek in the magazine’s March 29 issue. Nokta journalist Ahmet Şık and defense expert journalist Lale Sarıibrahimoğlu were also indicted on May 7 under TPC article 301 for “insulting the armed forces” in connection with an interview Şık conducted with Sarıibrahimoğlu, published on February 8.12 At the time of writing, it is not clear whether charges will be brought against Nokta staff as a result of documents collected during the April 13 police raid.

3 “Büyükanıt'ın konuşmasının tam metni” (“Full text of Büyükanıt’s speech”), Hurriyet newspaper website (Istanbul), April 12, 2007, (accessed July 17, 2007).

4 “Basın açıklaması BA-13/07” (“Press release BA-13/07”: unsigned), website of Office of General Chief of Staff, June 8, 2007, (accessed July 17, 2007).

5 Ibid.

6 "Günümüzde sivil eylemler ne kadar sivil?" (“How civilian are the civil [society] demonstrations today?”), Nokta magazine, (Istanbul), April 5, 2007.

7 “Büyükanıt'ın konuşmasının tam metni” (“Full text of Büyükanıt’s speech”), Hurriyet newspaper website (Istanbul), April 12, 2007, (accessed July 17, 2007).

8 "Hayret verici ayrıntılarıyla Sarıkız ve Ayışığı. 2004'te iki darbe atlatmışız!" (“Sarıkız and Ayışığı in shocking  detail. We narrowly escaped two coups in 2004!”, Nokta magazine (Istanbul), March 29, 2007.

9 “Nokta Dergisi'ne polis baskını; Bütün bilgisayarlara el konuldu” (“Police raid on Nokta magazine; all computers seized”), Yeni Şafak newspaper (Istanbul), April 13, 2007.

10 Alper Görmüş, “Alper Görmüş'ün açıklaması” (“Statement by Alper Görmüş”), webpage of now-closed Nokta magazine (Istanbul), April 21, 2007, (accessed July 17, 2007).

11 “Nokta dergisi kapanıyor” (“Nokta magazine is closing down”), Radikal newspaper (Istanbul), April 21, 2007.

12 Ahmet Şık and Lale Sarıibrahimoğlu, “Asker iç güvenlikten elini çekmeli" (“The military must keep out of domestic security [i.e. policing]”), Nokta magazine (Istanbul), February 8, 2007.