Non, je ne regrette rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

In a rare sign of consensus, all political parties in Turkey agreed last April on the establishment of a commission to investigate military coups in the country. Turkey has a long history of military coups and military rule during which citizens suffered prosecution and gross violations of human rights, including death. Seeing this “tradition” as one of the biggest obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, the commission interviewed 160 people, conducted site visits, heard former and current members of government, including former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller and head of state Süleyman Demirel, as well as former ministers, high civil servants, journalists and members of civil society.

Its recently published report ranges over a thousand pages and makes interesting reading not only for shedding light on suspicious political incidents in a time period of over 50 years but also, as described by its head, Nimet Baş, in her introduction, for the extraordinary nature of moments that range from the chilling to the eye-watering that were witnessed by the members of the commission. What struck them the most, however, was that they heard again and again the lines of this famous French song uttered by commanders and torturers of the then-military prisons: that they did not regret anything. The commission members could not believe that they showed no remorse whatsoever for the acts they committed and expressed no sorrow or sympathy for the victims. In fact, they dared to continue to verbally abuse the members of the commission, some of whom had been tortured in the prisons or police stations they ran. This “I regret nothing” attitude is consistent with the statements submitted in the recently opened trial of former military coup leaders Tahsin Şahinkaya (87) and Kenan Evren (95), who deny that what they did was wrong and maintain that they would do it again.

With due respect to the commission members, this was probably to be expected not only because the time that passed rendered the former generals’ views too entrenched but also just like everyone who is accused and put under the threat of punishment, they can only be expected to defend themselves. In that sense, the lesson from similar junta trials in other countries that also suffered military rule such as Greece or Argentina is clear: if there is a trial for the sins that have been committed, it’s better to do it early in the years of the transition to civilian rule rather than 29 years later, as in Turkey.

This is, of course, when a country opts for a trial to address wrongdoings during military rule. In other words, when a country chooses a judicial process, perpetrators are charged with crimes and put on “defense” and, if found guilty, victims are compensated for the past wrongdoings. In such a case, the court is a finder of facts and is presumed to “distribute justice” with its judgment. In that sense, the trial option is said to render “victor’s justice” as in the Nuremberg trials and further traumatize victims by reducing their pain and suffering to monetary terms. Indeed, the legal process is not known to allow for an opportunity to express regret or apology from perpetrators that most victims expect and need for their healing. As a result, the punitive nature in the trial option does not contribute to reconciliation in society between the perpetrators and victims. Therefore, the trial in Turkey faces the danger of remaining a show case when conducted after such a long time, not to mention the death of witnesses and perpetrators themselves.

Alternatively, as in South Africa after the apartheid regime, a Truth and Justice Commission can be established in which perpetrators are given amnesty for the crimes they committed in exchange of the truth coming out and being rendered public. Thus, this non-court approach encourages perpetrators to tell their story while encouraging them to express remorse and regret for what they did by removing the potential of punishment. It also empowers victims by giving them voice so that they share their stories and make their trauma heard. Unlike the distributiveness of a trial, the idea behind this approach is restorative justice, which allows for reconciliation on both sides. This is the most important part and difference from the trial option because in places with deeply entrenched injustice and massive human rights abuses, reconciliation is essential for the society to continue to function as a nation.

When viewed from this perspective, it is a lost opportunity that the commission has not been formed on a truth and reconciliation premise. If the few perpetrators it talked to had been encouraged by the removal of the threat of punishment in a pending parallel trial or investigation, not only they but others might have come forward on their own with their stories and apologies. In that sense, for all its work, the commission reaped what it sowed. It need not wonder in disbelief.