Former interior minister denies responsibility for deaths in ‘Return to Life Operation’ case

Former Interior Minister of Turkey, Sadettin Tantan, has testified as a witness in the “Return to Life Operation” case and denied responsibility for the disproportionate force used by the military. In 2000, 30 prisoners and two soldiers were killed during the simultaneous military operations in 20 prisons.

Duvar English

Sadettin Tantan, Turkey’s Interior Minister during the deadly “Return to Life Operation” of 2000, on Feb. 29 testified as a witness in the case. Tantan held that he executed the government’s orders, and took care to ensure no lives were harmed. 

Some 194 military personnel are under trial for the operation in Istanbul’s Bayrampaşa Prison. Tantan was invited as a witness for several of the hearings in the past but had not appeared in court citing illness, or no excuse. 

Tantan took the stand on the 50th hearing of the case and responded to some questions submitted by the victims’ lawyers. He rejected any involvement in a prison observation report, wherein allegedly prisons in the Marmara region were studied to see if convicts would oppose a military operation at their prisons.  

The Turkish military launched simultaneous operations on 20 prisoners across the country to break up a nonviolent death fast protest by inmates and transfer them to the newly constructed high-security F-type prisons. 32 people died in the operation, among them two soldiers. Hundreds of detainees and convicts were injured.

Tantan stated that the state had lost control of prisons, and they were run by terrorist organizations before the operation. “We have personally witnessed that terrorist organizations were changing the interior layouts of prisons,” he justified the operation.  

The former minister held that he merely signed off on government orders, and he had no authority to organize such an order. “Our real objective was to complete the operation without any harm to life. That was the direct order,” he stated. 

In previous hearings, then-director of prisons and detention houses Ali Suat Ertosun had suggested that the Interior Ministry and the gendarmerie held all operational authority. Tantan accepted that the authority was theirs to execute the government’s decision, however, they took all architectural plans of prisons into account to ensure no prisoners were harmed. 

He added that he “did not or could not have any information” about the extent of the weaponry used by military personnel during the operation. Victims’ lawyers had stated that weapons unsuitable for indoor settings were used during the operation. 

The Natural Security Council was the principal responsible for the operation, stated the former minister. “All the officials in the Security Council’s ranks planned the operation together,” he added. 

The next hearing for the case will be held on 1 April.