[Sidebar] December 14 - 21, 2000


Torture is the issue

Although human-rights abuses remain widespread in Turkey, Providence-based Textron, Inc., is poised to sell $4.5 billion worth of attack helicopters to the US ally

by Steven Stycos

[] They put Xebat Baran in a dark room that smelled of urine and human excrement, blindfolded him, and tied a long board to his arms, forcing him to stand as though he were being crucified. Then, the Turkish police in Istanbul hoisted the board off the ground, so that Baran's feet couldn't touch the floor. Pulling down his pants, the police applied electricity to his genitals.

Retelling this 10-year-old story is still more torture for Baran. Sitting in his apartment in West Warwick, with a cup of tea on the table in front of him, the 33-year-old Kurdish émigré starts to cry and leaves the room to compose himself.

When he returns, Baran explains that the police had sought his help to locate two people from his Kurdish village, and he'd feared for their safety. "I thought my arms were going to pop out," he recalls of the torture. At one point, his tormentors asked if he were married. When Baran said no, one officer responded, "Don't worry, you're never going to have a kid."

Eventually the torture stopped, although Baran continued to hear the cries and screams of other prisoners through the night. In the morning, the police took him to several Kurdish bakeries and asked him to identify others who might know the two villagers' whereabouts. Continuing to say that he had no information, Baran was finally released. But his traumatic experience is hardly isolated. In their most recent human-rights reports, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department each describe the use of torture by the Turkish police and military as widespread.

Into this human-rights hellhole, Providence-based Textron, Inc., wants to send 145 of its AH-1Z KingCobra attack helicopters.

Turkey selected Textron for the $4.5 billion contract in July. Because of Turkey's abysmal human-rights record, Amnesty International opposes the sale and is urging the State Department to deny an export license to the huge weapons maker. But backed by its annual $4.5 million lobbying operation and $359,000 in contributions during the recent campaign season, Textron -- the third-largest defense contractor in New England -- is pushing hard for approval.

[] Human-rights advocates expect the Cobras to be used in southeastern Turkey, where the Kurdish minority lives under martial law, and where human-rights violations are most frequent. Like the Kurds in Iraq, Turkish Kurds have been struggling to establish their own nation since the end of World War I. Although Kurds are allowed to participate in all levels of Turkish life, they must do so as Turks, not Kurds. Belief in a united Turkey has led to repression, including severe restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language on radio and television. Kurdish agitation, led by the violent leftist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), intensified after a military coup toppled the elected Turkish government in 1980.

In response to both peaceful protest and armed rebellion, the Turkish government has burned or evacuated 3000 Kurdish settlements in the southeast since 1984, creating as many as three million refugees, according to Amnesty International. The army has quieted the armed revolt, diminished the PKK guerrillas' access to food and support, and captured their leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

American-made helicopters, including Textron Cobras, have played an integral part in this scorched-earth policy by transporting soldiers in the southeast, say human-rights groups. They have also been used to bomb unarmed civilians and, in one instance, to help soldiers abduct, torture, and murder four men, according to Human Rights Watch.

Because Turkey will not allow human-rights monitors and journalists to visit the southeast, it's impossible to ensure that Textron's helicopters will not be used in future human-rights abuses, says Maureen Greenwood, Amnesty International USA's Washington-based advocacy director for Europe and the Middle East.

Lewis Campbell

Yet Turkey's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its long history as a strategic ally of the US make it unlikely that the $4.5 billion deal will be quashed. US jets have used Turkish air bases to bomb nearby Iraq, and Turkey's military trains with that of another embattled US ally, Israel. President Bill Clinton warned earlier this year that angering Turkey could have "far-reaching negative consequences for the United States."

Eager to bolster its stock price, which has lost more than half its value in the last 18 months, Textron is using Clinton's views to its advantage. "We agree with the State Department," says Gene Kozicharow, Textron's Washington-based director of public affairs, referring to Clinton's warning. But when asked whether Textron agrees with the State Department's damning assessment of human-rights abuses in Turkey, Kozicharow responded, "I think I'm going to cut this off, Steve. Talk to you later," and hung up. Textron's chief executive officer, Lewis Campbell, who lives on Providence's East Side, refused the Phoenix's request for an interview through another company spokesperson.

Textron, whose defense operations are spread among its four divisions, employs 68,000 workers in plants in 30 countries. The company records $11.6 billion in annual revenue and is the 10th-largest American defense contractor, with $1.4 billion in sales to the US government in fiscal 1999, according to a survey in Government Executive magazine. Other than the Providence headquarters, Textron's New England presence consists of plants that make auto parts in the New Hampshire cities of Dover and Manchester; and the Textron Systems plant in Wilmington, Massachusetts, which manufactures "smart" munitions such as mines and bombs.

[] In Rhode Island, Textron has bolstered its image as a good corporate citizen by donating $1.1 million to scholarships for women and minorities at Providence College, and by helping to establish the Textron Chamber of Commerce Academy charter school in Providence. The conglomerate's founder, Royal Little, is fondly remembered for creating the charitable trust that each year pays the administrative expenses for the United Way of Southeastern New England.

But throughout its corporate history, Textron has been accused of putting profits ahead of human concerns. In 1948, 9000 workers lost their jobs and two congressional investigations were launched when the company closed textile factories in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and moved production to South Carolina, Georgia, and Puerto Rico.

Textron's weapons manufacturing has been controversial since the conglomerate purchased Bell Helicopter, based in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1960. In 1979, Textron admitted that it had paid $2.95 million to a company in which the former chief of the Iranian air force had an interest -- while Textron was finalizing a $500 million helicopter deal with the shah of Iran. That same year, the company admitted making payments to generals in Ghana and the Dominican Republic in connection with helicopter sales. The Wall Street Journal reported that payoffs were made in helicopter deals with Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) and Mexico. And Textron has helped arm dictators in El Salvador and Indonesia.

In 1992, the company was able to reverse a decision by Richard Cheney, then secretary of defense, that development and construction of the V- 22 Osprey Tilt Rotor aircraft was unnecessary. Lobbying by Textron persuaded Congress to reinstate the project, the cost of which is estimated by the Defense Department at more than $36 billion. The Osprey was expected to go into full-scale production soon, but the Marines asked for a delay after four soldiers were killed this past Tuesday, December 12, during a training exercise in North Carolina -- the second Osprey crash this year, according to the New York Times. The crash came not long after the Associated Press reported the findings of the Pentagon's top civilian supervisor of weapons testing: that although the Osprey is "operationally effective," it has not proven to be "operationally suitable," meaning that the hybrid helicopter-airplane's use poses maintenance and repair costs that may be unacceptably high.

SITTING WITH Baran at the dining-room table of his West Warwick home is Bawer Azadi, another Kurdish immigrant who has established a new life in Rhode Island. Like Baran, he is using a pseudonym and declines to be photographed. If they are identified, the two men fear, the Turkish government will retaliate against their relatives in Turkey.

Azadi, who is also in his early 30s, fled Turkey less than two years ago, leaving behind a profitable tour-bus business and three homes. Now, he works in the jewelry industry and as a store clerk, making half of what he earned in Turkey. But Azadi doesn't regret leaving. He tells of being blindfolded and beaten by police for two days after refusing to be an informant, and he was arrested on another occasion for attending a celebration of the Kurdish new year. A friend, Azadi says, was killed for reading a Kurdish newspaper. An uncle who was arrested last year in the Izmir bus station has not been seen since. Describing his decision to emigrate, Azadi says, "My friends were being killed one by one. I knew my turn was coming."

Like Baran, Azadi urges Textron's Campbell to reconsider the company's helicopter deal with Turkey. "That person who makes the decision to sell helicopters to Turkey," he says in Kurdish as Baran translates, "should imagine he was born a Kurd and living in a Kurdish village. Then, this village has been bombed by Cobra helicopters. Once he can imagine this vision, he could decide, `Should I send these helicopters to Turkey?' "

Another thing US decision-makers might consider: although Kurds are the most frequent victims of Turkey's human-rights violations, they are hardly the only ones.

In 1999, an elected delegate to the Turkish parliament was prevented from taking her oath of office because she was wearing a Muslim headscarf, according to Human Rights Watch. Also last year, the president of the Turkish Human Rights Association was sentenced to a year in prison for using the phrase "the Kurdish people" in a speech. In addition, the fundamentalist Muslim mayor of Istanbul was imprisoned, and banned from politics for life, for reading a few lines of a poem that did not contain any advocacy of violence.

Free speech is regularly suppressed in Turkey, according to the US State Department. Books are banned and newspapers seized. Last year, an appellate court upheld the imprisonment of nine students, for up to eight years, for unfurling a protest banner in parliament. Also in 1999, poet Yilmaz Odabasi was jailed for telling a judge, "I am ashamed to be in the same era and country as you"; cartoonist Dogan Guzel was sentenced for "insulting the president"; and playwright Mehmet Vahi Yazar and four actors were imprisoned for performing a play that was "insulting [to] the military."

In 1998, in response to pressure from human-rights groups, the State Department set eight human-rights benchmarks that Turkey supposedly must meet before Textron receives an export license for the Cobras. According to Amnesty's Greenwood, a coalition of human-rights groups told State Department officials in October that, although Turkey has taken small steps to improve human rights, "there hasn't been major progress" on the whole.

Technically, Congress could overturn a State Department decision to grant an export license, but that has never happened. And although congressional opposition exists, it appears to fall far short of the necessary majority.

Neither of Rhode Island's US senators has joined that opposition. Although Democrat Jack Reed is concerned about human rights and Turkey's continuing occupation of Cyprus, he supports the helicopter sale, according to press secretary Greg McCarthy, because Turkey is "an ally and NATO partner, and a country that's strategically located."

Republican Lincoln Chafee, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, admits he knew little of the issue before Kurds approached him this fall at a town meeting in Providence. He refused to sign a congressional letter supporting the sale, because "as those fellows at the town meeting said, Turkey uses these helicopters against the Kurds." But when asked if he would sign a letter opposing the sale, Chafee takes a long pause and remarks, "I'd have to find out more about it."

On the House side, US Representative-elect James Langevin "would be inclined to oppose the sale," according to spokesman Ray Sullivan. In April, US Representatives Robert Weygand and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and James McGovern of Worcester, Massachusetts, along with 26 others (none of them from New England), wrote to Clinton, urging him to deny an export license. Clinton's response was noncommittal, but he lauded Turkey's "significant progress" on human rights.

Because contract negotiations between Textron and Turkey are unlikely to be completed until spring, George W. Bush will have to make the export-license decision. But recent congressional action suggests that Textron and Turkey will prevail.

EARLIER THIS year, the US House of Representatives buckled rather than confront a historical violation of human rights that was Turkey's most horrific abuse ever. In 1915 and 1916, Turkey forcibly deported its Armenian population to the Syrian desert to create living space for the Balkan Turks who lost their property during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, according to the Encyclopedia of Genocide (ABC-CLIO, 1999). Some Armenians were massacred outright; more than 500,000 others died from hunger or disease as they were deliberately denied food and water on the forced march. The Turkish government continues to deny that the elimination of its Armenian population was intentional.

A coalition of more than 80 representatives, including Kennedy, Weygand, and McGovern, sponsored a House resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. The resolution had no legal effect, but urged federal employees to be aware that the Turkish government sanctioned "ethnic cleansing" during World War I. The measure lay dormant in committee until September, when House leaders suddenly pushed a vote to aid the re-election campaign of US Representative James Rogan, a Republican from California. One of the House floor managers during President Clinton's impeachment trial, Rogan represents a district with a large Armenian population.

Once House leaders decided to move the resolution, it easily passed in committee and headed to the House floor. Outraged representatives of Turkey's government threatened to halt negotiations with Textron and instead buy helicopters from a Russian-Israeli consortium, according to Bloomberg News Service. Worried that the $4.5 billion deal might collapse, Textron lobbied the congressmen who represent the area surrounding the company's Fort Worth plant to kill the resolution. "We felt it was important to support Turkey," explains Kozicharow.

President Clinton also sided with Turkey, telling House Speaker Dennis Hastert in a letter, "We have significant interests in this troubled region of the world: containing the threat posed by East and Central Asia, stabilizing the Balkans and developing new sources of energy." In response, Hastert withdrew the resolution in late October. He conceded that it would have passed but explained, "Every patriotic American should heed the president's request."

The outcome disappointed Baran, who saw the resolution as important to the Kurdish human-rights struggle. "Had Turkey been condemned with Armenian genocide, would she be able to get American weapons to conduct another genocide against Kurds?" he asks. "I do not believe so."

But as has happened so many times, Turkey prevailed. "They play that card NATO has given them," says Baran, "and they play it at the highest efficiency."

The Armenian-Kurdish lobby did, however, receive a consolation prize. "We sent a message back to the Speaker," says Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Washington-based Armenian National Committee of America, by helping to defeat Rogan handily at the polls.

As for the current question, the signs are mixed. Amnesty's Greenwood is not ready to concede that Textron will receive permission to sell the Cobras to Turkey. In 1996, she notes, congressional pressure stopped the sale of 10 Cobras to Turkey and prevented US financing of a $38 million sale of armored personnel carriers in 1998. Across the Atlantic, the European Union (EU) shows no reluctance to hold the NATO ally accountable for its past. In November, the EU passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide and calling on Turkey to withdraw from Cyprus.

But in Washington, where Textron exerts major lobbying force for foreign arms sales and other business interests, the corporation's successful effort against the Armenian resolution was only one of several recent victories on Capitol Hill. According to the most recent disclosure forms, Textron devoted $4.5 million to lobbying Congress between July 1, 1999, and June 30, 2000. In addition, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Textron made $359,230 in contributions during the recent federal political campaign, 63 percent of which went to Republicans.

The expenditures paid off. Since July 1999, according to its lobbying reports, Textron has successfully pushed for improved trade relations with China, and against stronger automobile fuel-efficiency standards and the proposed patients' bill of rights. But most of Textron's lobbying focuses on military sales. According to its report, the company worked to ensure that a variety of Textron weapons, including the Osprey helicopter-plane, the Sensor Fuzed Weapon (manufactured at the Wilmington, Massachusetts, plant), unmanned planes, and the lightweight howitzer, would be financed by the Defense Appropriations Act. Textron pushed legislation to support sales by its Cessna Aircraft division to the FBI, CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard, and Customs Service.

Textron also pushed hard for President Clinton's $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package for Colombia, a large portion of which will pay for the purchase of 42 Textron-produced Huey helicopters. As part of its Colombia lobbying efforts, according to Newsweek, the company brought helicopters to Washington's Reagan National Airport and took congressmen for rides.

The controversial aid package for Colombia passed, but with human-rights conditions. Then in August, Clinton used his authority to waive the human-rights provisions, because doing so was in the "national security interest." Once again, Textron made a big sale.

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