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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 dehumanized 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 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 his emotional well-being has been permanently destroyed, he has received psychiatric treatment, and he was so traumatized he has never been able to marry.
Called up to do his military service, Eslik was made a prison warden in Mamak Prison in 1982 and received special training from officers in methods of inflicting pain.
He is 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,” 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 September 12, 1980. A quarter of a million people were arrested and tortured, according to Amnesty International, while Turkish human rights organizations 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 across a decade and a half 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.
One victim, Yasar Yildirim, recalls how the chief warden at Mamak ordered prisoners into the yard and set German shepherd dogs on them. “The torture lasted for 45 minutes,” says 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 his 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.
“Demilitarization will take a long time,” said 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.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.