After Turkey's 1980 military dictatorship, no desire for a repeat

The original gallows still stand at Ulucanlar Prison in Turkey's capital, Ankara, though they now serve as a monument behind a large cage to bloodier times under a military dictator.

Nineteen people were hanged here after the putsch in 1980. A sign now informs visitors at the prison-turned-museum that the death penalty has been "fully abolished" in Turkey since July 14, 2004.

But the latest coup attempt, 12 years nearly to the day later, has sparked resounding calls for the reinstatement of capital punishment.

Huseyin Esenturk knows Ulucanlar as a prison. A student at the time, Esenturk, now 60, had been arrested shortly before the military coup on September 12, 1980, over accusations of establishing an illegal communist association.

"I was never a member of the organization," he said. "I had sympathized, but that was it."

Under the military dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, many of them tortured. Esenturk recalls electric shocks to the genitals, foot whippings, being hanged by the wrists after they were tied behind his back - they called it "Palestinian hanging," he says.

Some of his friends died during the dictatorship; Esenturk himself barely survived the torture. "Friends had fed me milk through a straw," he recalls

He had been sentenced to six years in prison and two in exile, circulating through multiple prisons, including Ulucanlar.

More than 30 years later, he is back at Ulucanlar as a free man, but he will never be able to forget his time there as a prisoner.

"It's very difficult to describe my feelings," he says as he walks through the grounds.

He's not happy with the sterile museum that the prison has become. Esenturk's friend and former fellow inmate, Cumhur Yavuz, agrees: "They've destroyed the spirit of the place. They are capitalizing on our pain."

Yavuz and Esenturk have to pay admission to enter their earlier place of torment, and as Esenturk tries to go into his former barracks, a guard stops him due to renovation work. However, after hearing that Esenturk had once been a prisoner there, the guard lets him in.

The prison has become a gallery of wax figures, nine of them set up in the 20-bunkbed barracks to represent the prisoners. Esenturk says there were 230 people crammed in at the time: "We slept in shifts."

The replicated interrogation chamber is also not quite realistic, in his opinion. More wax figures, even wax rats. The sounds of beatings and desperate pleas come from speakers: "I didn't do it." "Let me out." "Is anybody there?"

"Back then, the screams were louder," Esenturk says. There were also no beds there, and the floor was made of mud, not concrete. "You tried to fill up" on the bread the wardens would throw in the dirt.

Listening to Esenturk, it becomes more clear why people went out on the streets and risked their lives to stop the putschists' tanks last month. Not just him, but an overwhelming part of the Turkish population was traumatized by the military dictatorship from 1980 to 1983.

Esenturk says he watched from his balcony in Ankara as a breakaway arm of the military bombed the city with fighter jets on the night of July 15. He feared that they would be successful, that he would be sent to prison once again under a new military dictatorship. "My wife asked me: 'Should I pack your suitcase again?'" Esenturk says.

Esenturk and his friends still consider themselves leftists, certainly not fans of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are strictly against his attempts to bring back the death penalty.

But they are also evidence that Turks don't have to be supporters of the president in order to be against the coup attempt. "Putsch for me always means oppression and torture, massacre and death," he says.

It's the job of civilians, not the military, to push for a change in government, Esenturk says. "If we want to oust Tayyip, then we should do it - not the army."

Last update: Sun, 14/08/2016 - 09:38

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