Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Margins of the Archive: Torture, Heroism, and the Ordinary in Prison No. 5, Turkey

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Margins of the Archive: Torture, Heroism, and the Ordinary in Prison No. 5, Turkey

Article excerpt


On September 12, 1980, Turkish Armed Forces declared a coup d'état, which toppled down the democratically elected government, revoked constitutional rights and freedoms, and banned all political parties, associations, and unions. Having suspended the rule of law, the junta regime established special detention centers for the persecution of several hundred thousand political activists from all over Turkey. The most notorious of the detention centers was the Diyarbakır military prison, known as Prison No. 5, where Kurds from all walks of life were confined. Between 1980 and 1984, civilians' access to this prison was strictly forbidden, including detainees' lawyers, family members, and human rights activists. Nevertheless, Diyarbakır military court continued to conduct trials charging Kurds with secessionism and sentencing them to eight to 30 years. Tracing the unauthorized movement of documents issued by Diyarbakır military court, this article asks what meanings the court archive gains as documents are duplicated, re-inscribed, and circulated outside the confines of military institutions?

Instead of reading the court archive as a textual artifact whose hermeneutic interpretation is under the strict control of the military, this article attends to its margins where the textual and symbolic meanings of the junta regime are altered. Margins of court decisions are the sites where the archive is entangled with narratives alternative to that which claimed the Kurds' criminality. Through prisoner testimonies, political defense statements, and minuscule notes attached to the margins, the archive of court documents turns into archives of polyvalent political aspirations and desires that simultaneously expose the violence of the junta regime. The margins disclose torture and trauma inflicted on prisoners to obtain evidence for the military trials, which denied the existence of Kurds' anticolonial struggle. They also reveal how words and the worlds violated by military institutions are stitched back together through actions undertaken in the margins.

Duplication of court documents by the then defense lawyers is one form of action that sparked collective efforts among Kurdish activists and human rights advocates to try military officers and judicial personnel of the 1980 junta regime, and to establish a memory museum in the place of Prison No. 5. Complementing the court documents with testimonies of former prisoners, this group compiled an archive of torture documenting the techniques deployed in Prison No. 5 that had targeted the semantic world of prisoners and their sense of singularity. Through this archiving project, court documents originally produced to prove the culpability of the Kurds turn into an archive attesting to the criminality of the state.

The other form of action involves a Kurdish revolutionary who defended the Kurdish anti-colonial struggle before Diyarbakır military court. He resumed his performance in Prison No. 5 until he ended his life in a death protest. The political defense of this revolutionary coupled with his death protest constitutes another archive that I call the archive of heroism. Rather than challenging the notorious depictions of Prison No. 5, the archive of heroism reveals how a radically different form of social existence was made imaginable by a Kurdish revolutionary from within the militarized space of denial and death. Hence, while the archive of torture provides the ground to lay claims for restorative justice, the archive of heroism refashions court documents with resistance.

Subsequently, this article asks how to understand the ordinary under extraordinary conditions of the 1980 junta regime documented by the archive of torture and heroism. Is there room for life in court documents that were tainted by the lethal torture practices and death protests? In this piece, I finally call into attention another archive constituted by the ordinary prisoners' collective writing practices that involved sketching pictures, writing small notes, and doodling English stories. …

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