Turkish soldiers - AP - Nov. 2010
Turkish soldiers in an army parade in Turkish-occupied Cyprus in November of 2010. Photo by AP
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"In the dark of a mountain pass / The time of morning prayer / I lie on the ground / My body stretched out / Blood strewn ... / I had been shot / My dreams have now become / darker than night / No-one knows any of this for sure / My life was taken before time / This cannot be explained in books / A general was given a secret order / So I was shot dead / No interrogation or trial."

These are translated (by Iskender Ozden ) lines from an elegy entitled "33 Bullets" by the Turkish poet Ahmed Arif to memorialize a tragic 1943 event in which 33 civilians were killed. The Kurdish villagers were detained while smuggling cattle from the Iranian border into Turkey, but after being arrested by the gendarmerie were released by a court due to lack of evidence. This verdict incurred the wrath of General Mustafa Muglali, who ordered that the villagers be arrested anew, driven to an isolated field and executed. Testimony was later collected indicating that the general ordered an official report to be drafted, claiming that the Kurds were shot while trying to escape.

Six years after this mass execution, a court found General Muglali guilty and sentenced him to death. The sentence was subsequently commuted to 20 years imprisonment. A year after the trial, the general died of a heart attack. Since then, the event has remained part of the Turkish and, more particularly, Kurdish national consciousness. As well as Arif's poem, plans to name a street and later a park after the victims has become part of a struggle over the historical memory.

Ironically, the same agent that tried to suppress memories of the event - the Turkish army - became the one that preserved them. After years of disputes about the character of the event, in 2004 the Turkish army's Chief of Staff, Hilmi Ozkok, ordered that the army base located close to the site where the villagers were executed be named after General Muglali. That set off a firestorm in Turkey, with repeated protests against the memorial tablet in the general's honor, located in the region of the mass execution.

The latest, but not final, twist in this saga came to the fore in recent days, with the publication of a series of articles by the Turkish journalist Rasim Ozan Kutahyali in which the decision to name the army base after Muglali is characterized as "loathsome or inane." "If people carry out such an act intentionally, then they are loathsome," wrote Kutahyali. "If the idea is to build a strong, independent Turkish army and state, then such actions are inane."

These words sparked an army demand that the journalist face charges, under article 301 of Turkey's criminal code prohibiting insults against the military. Accordingly, an investigation was launched against Kutahyali, and he will be brought to trial.

This week, the journalist's colleague Mustafa Akyol published in the Hurriyet a pungent op-ed against the investigation. The piece concluded with the following plea: "If you, reader, agree that this was a stupid or loathsome act, and if you are a citizen of Turkey, I propose that you say nothing aloud. You are liable to find yourself accused of "insulting the army," to my sorrow we still do not live in a free country."

Akyol's opinion piece provoked livid responses. Readers accused him of supporting the Justice and Development Party, opposing secularism and hating the army. "The Justice and Development Party had more than enough time to do something about article 301 of the criminal code. Why hasn't it done anything since it came to power?" one reader angrily wrote. "I have never before seen anyone this ungrateful. Were it not for Ataturk, Akyol would be writing in Greek, Russian, English, French or Italian. It seems that Akyol would be very happy about that, so long as he is able to implement religious law," opined another reader. "Why don't you write something positive about the way that Kemalist principles in the army saved Turkey from a fate worse than extinction," wondered a third reader.

Kemalist ideology or religion, love of the army or state treason - public discourse in Turkey ranges between these poles, and the debates are not completely unlike discussions in Israel on the topic broadly defined as "patriotism." Israel's criminal code does not include a clause making it illegal to insult the army; nonetheless, "harm caused to the principles of Zionism" is becoming an acceptable public indictment and could conceivably become the foundation of a criminal offense, just as causing harm to Kemalism is outlawed as a crime in Turkey.

Interestingly, throughout this saga Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's voice has not been heard. He conducts his campaign against the army in the legal framework, by arresting army officers on suspicions of conspiracy against the government and the unusual decision to oust from military service officers suspected of taking part in a conspiracy. This is the first time a civilian government has suspended active army officers.

Erdogan might not be doing enough to promote civil rights in Turkey, but this week he received another important prize, awarded by Muammar Qaddafi to leaders active in the civil rights sphere. (Past winners include Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. ) Erdogan, whose resume is already studded with several prizes, is the frontrunner for Time magazine's "Man of the Year" award. The question is whether his chances for victory in elections in Turkey next year could be better boosted by such Time recognition, or by the U.S. government's judgment (according to WikiLeaks ) that Turkey cannot be trusted.