Major hints at possible chemical weapon use in ‘operation Back-to-Life’

A retired major who was in charge of the violent Operation Back-to-Life 11 years ago, carried out by security forces to suppress a spate of prison riots, has said he saw the kind of bombs that were used against the prisoners during the operation for the first time, which is significant as there are allegations that chemical weapons were used during the operation.

Retired Maj. Zeki Bingöl, one of the commanders in charge of the operation, offered details, including the sort of ammunition used when suppressing the riots, during which 12 people were killed in Bayrampaşa Prison alone. More than 32 inmates were killed in total.

Monday was the 11th anniversary of the deadly operation, conducted simultaneously on Dec. 19, 2000, in 20 prisons.

“I had never before seen a plastic grenade they used that was pear-shaped. You don’t have that kind of explosive in the inventory of the gendarmerie command. Those grenades were brought to the prison when the Protocol on Cooperation for Security and Public Order [EMASYA] commander arrived together with the prosecutor,” he said.

“At some point in the operation the EMASYA brigade commander arrived [at Bayrampaşa]. Chief Prosecutor Ferzan Çitici and Prosecutor Fikret Ünalan were also in attendance. These bombs that I had never seen before in my professional life were brought in at that time, and they were used. I don’t know if they were chemical.”

Bingöl, who is expected to appear before the court hearing the trial in the next hearing having witness status, claimed that the decision to conduct the operation was given by the National Security Council (MGK).

The investigation into the Hayata Dönüş (Back to Life) operation was completed in May of last year with the Bakırköy 12th High Criminal Court accepting the indictment into incidents that left 12 inmates dead and 29 others seriously injured at İstanbul’s Bayrampaşa Prison. Human rights groups say the indictment claims that the 39 privates sent to subdue the riot were responsible for the deaths, but does not bring charges against the politicians who authorized the operation or the military officers who gave the orders.

Retired Maj. Bingöl agrees. “If there is a crime there, it is that of the commanders that gave orders to the 39 privates. That’s us. The names of the commanders are written in the operation plan,” he said.

In related developments, Oya Aslan, a lawyer who has co-plaintiff status in the case being heard by the Bakırköy 13th High Criminal, said Bingöl should testify to the prosecutors, who, in turn, should change their indictment in accordance with the information he provides. “The prosecutor conducting this probe should hear Bingöl’s testimony immediately and prepare a new indictment,” she said on Monday when Bingöl’s remarks were published in the Zaman daily.

Selçuk Kozağaçlı, another co-plaintiff lawyer in the case and also head of the Contemporary Jurists’ Association, said they were confident that chemical weapons had been used in the operation, confirmed by reports from the Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK). He said phosphorus shells of the same kind that were used by Israel against the Palestinians in a bombing campaign in 2009 were used against the inmates. He said the high-ranking commanders in charge of the operation were being protected by the Gendarmerie General Command and the General Staff, which have been keeping documents that can serve as vital evidence in the trial hidden for years.

A victim also spoke about the operation following Bingöl’s remarks. Hacer Arıkan, who was a Bayrampaşa Prison inmate at the time and suffered severe burns on half of her body, said Bingöl had confirmed her and other victims’ claims that chemicals were used against the inmates. She also called on the 39 privates who are on trial to speak out and tell the truth.

“They used pear-shaped grenades. They weren’t combustible. It melted our skin without burning our clothes. I saw people’s skin melt and literally drip onto the floor,” she said.

Who should really be on trial?

Bingöl also said the operation was conducted in perfect compliance with the command chain hierarchy. The highest ranking commander in charge was then Gendarmerie General Commander Gen. Aytaç Yalman. Other commanders included Gendarmerie Regional Commander Gen. Engin Hoş and Operations Department President Gen. Osman Özbek, who directly took orders from Gen. Yalman.

“This operation was carried out to push the left-wing camp closer toward the neo-nationalists,” Bingöl claimed. He said the operation was a continuation of the Feb. 28, 1997, unarmed military coup against what the military saw was the threat from the religious right. “The military members of the MGK were trying to overthrow the Bülent Ecevit government,” he said, echoing earlier statements from many other observers at the time. “To my knowledge, the inmates in there had been living under the same conditions since 1994. Why wasn’t such an operation held before 2000? The real purpose was to create a new left different from the universal left, a new racist left and calling this neo-nationalism,” he elaborated.

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