Threat from the protectors

This month, on a date yet to be agreed, Britain will hand over command of the 18-nation United Nations security force in Afghanistan to Turkey. The arrangement was agreed, not without reservations on many sides, last April.

Superficially it seems like a reasonable idea. Turkey, though secular at government level, is a Muslim country with a large army and aspirations to enter the Western fold. It is a long-standing member of Nato and an aspirant member of the European Union.

Washington was keen on Turkey’s leadership of the International Security Assistance Force, not least because it allows the United States to argue that the Afghan campaign is not, as is widely believed in the Muslim world, a war against Islam.

President George W Bush asked Congress to pay Turkey $228-million to take on the job.

So much for what Turkey and the US are getting out of it. What is Afghanistan getting? Not much, it seems. The Karzai government has not hidden its anxieties about Turkey’s support in the past for General Abdul Rashid Dostum, now Deputy Defence Minister, whose passion for tying people to tank tracks was documented in painful detail by the journalist Ahmed Rashid. Dostum’s men also had a remarkably poor record when it came to rape and sexual torture of Afghan women.

How much hope is there that Turkey will provide protection from such abuses? Not much, according to a recent report by the Kurdish Human Rights Project. It claims that Turkish security forces systematically rape and sexually abuse women in Turkey. When victims complain, it is they, not the rapists, who face criminal prosecution.

The document is a trial observation report — not, sadly, a trial of army or police officers for rape, but of women who spoke out and were then charged with undermining the unity of the state. The charges arose from a conference organised in June 2000 by several NGOs to address what they said was systematic sexual violence perpetrated by state officials against women in custody.

The Turkish government’s response to the powerful evidence presented was to initiate investigations against 19 of the speakers and subsequently to bring legal proceedings against them for ”denigrating” the security forces. A second investigation led to even more serious charges against five speakers, this time before the state security court, for daring to claim that Kurdish women were disproportionately the victims.

By mentioning the fact that Kurdish women were raped in custody and during village raids, the state argued, the conference organisers, lawyers and victims had ”incited people to enmity and hatred by pointing to class, racial, religious, confessional or regional differences”. The charges before the state council carry a maximum sentence of six years.

It is no coincidence that many Kurdish women are raped. Rape is a useful tool in the destruction of a rival ethnic group. Given the social and legal penalties for speaking out, it is a reasonable assumption that the documented cases of rape and sexual torture of Kurdish women represent the tip of the iceberg. Even so, they reveal that sexual torture is routinely used against women in custody and frequently involves their children and other family members.

Until recently the Turkish government denied that rape and sexual torture took place. Then came a small admission of ”isolated cases”.

Last November an intrepid group held a further conference to mark the International Day against Violence against Women. As a result, Eren Keskin, co-founder of a project that supplies legal aid to women raped or sexually abused by state security forces, has been charged with disseminating ”separatist propaganda”. The second hearing in the case is set for July, by which time, if things go according to plan, Turkish forces will be in charge of the security of the women of Afghanistan.

The Kurdish report has received little attention, but then the abuse of women in Afghanistan was scarcely a high priority in Washington before September 11. Afterwards, of course, even USfirst lady Laura Bush was moved to protest about the suffering of her Afghan sisters.

Now that the Taliban has been ousted from Kabul, the continued suffering of the women of Afghanistan, like that of Kurdish women in Turkey, is no longer useful. The ongoing abuse is merely an embarrassment to Afghanistan’s Western ”liberators”, rather as the suffering of Kurdish women is an embarrassment as long as Bush needs the Turkish military in charge of peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

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