Turkish exhibit displays coup-era torture instruments ahead of constitutional referendum

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A wooden pole used to suspend suspects by their arms. A baton used to beat prisoners on the soles of their feet. Cables used to give electric shocks.

All are displayed at an exhibit ahead of a referendum on changes to the constitution that was crafted in the wake of Turkey's 1980 military coup, which was marked by torture and other abuses.

On Sept. 12, the coup's 30th anniversary, Turks will vote on a package of 26 reforms that the government says will strengthen democracy and bring the 1982 constitution more in line with European norms — a key plank in the nation's EU bid.

Opposition figures charge the government is pushing the amendments to try to increase control over the courts. One measure would give parliament a say in appointing judges.

The referendum is shaping up as a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's eight year-old government. But it has also become the latest battleground between Turkey's government, led by a rising class of pious Muslims, and staunchly secular circles that once held power.

"The decision is yours," said Erdogan late Tuesday. "On the one hand we have the coup constitution, on the other hand we have the constitution of the people."

Turkish opinion polls point to either a vote split down the middle or a very narrow majority for the "yes" camp. The proposed changes include more rights for women and children and collective wage bargaining for civil servants.

They would also increase the power of civilian courts over military ones and possibly pave the way for the trial of the leaders of the 1980 military coup that curbed years of civil strife but also led to the arrest, torture and extrajudicial killing of many activists.

Legal experts, however, say a statute of limitations will prevent the prosecution of then military chief Kenan Evren and his immediate subordinates who seized power in the early hours of Sept 12, 1980.

The changes underscore differences between the government and the courts, traditional guardians of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the country in 1923 after the Ottoman imperial collapse.

If the referendum passes, the number of Constitutional Court justices would increase to 17 from 11. A council that oversees prosecutors and judges nationwide would also increase to 22 members, from seven, and four of the members would be appointed by the president.

Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk has said he sees the referendum as a means of reckoning with the coup and declared he would vote "yes."

But some see the referendum as an opportunity to strike a blow against the Islamic-rooted government, which they fear is slowly putting an Islamic stamp on their secular life.

"There may be some good things, I don't know. But the government is not good for Turkey, that is why my vote will be 'no,'" said student Tugce Ince.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the country's largest pro-secular political force, the Republican People's Party, has charged the proposed amendments don't go far enough to scrap "the legacy of the Sept. 12 coup." He has called for a new constitution as well as rewording a military law that coup leaders have used to justify their actions.

Evren, who later became the country's president, shut down parliament, suspended the constitution, imprisoned civilian leaders and disbanded political parties before returning power to civilians three years later.

Some 650,000 people were detained in the days that followed the coup and 230,000 people were prosecuted in military courts, according to official figures. Some 300 people died in prison, including 171 people who died as a result of torture. There were 49 executions, including that of 17-year-old Erdal Eren, whose hanging for allegedly killing a soldier horrified Turks.

Leftist victims of the military takeover are exhibiting torture devices as well as letters and photographs of comrades who died, went missing or were tortured in the exhibition dubbed "The Museum of Shame."

A replica of the gallows used to hang Eren, as well as a tweed jacket worn by the teenager, are on display.

"We want the tyranny of the coup leaders to be kept fresh in peoples' minds," said organizer Yilmaz Cerek. "We must not forget it and we must make sure that it is never forgotten."

His group, 78'liler or Generation 1978, has long campaigned for the prosecution of the coup leaders and other officers they accuse of torture.

Some members of the group will vote "yes" to the changes, though most oppose, like Cerek say the proposed changes are cosmetic.

Cerek, now 53, was a teacher when he was detained in a small town in northern Turkey during the coup for his membership in a left-wing organization. He was tortured and spent 3 1/2 years in prison.