Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 11:56 UK

Transsexual Turk upsets military

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

With her throaty vocals and flamboyant frocks, Bulent Ersoy is Turkey's best-known diva, adored across the country.

Bulent Ersoy (pic: Bora Bagcibasi)
Bulent Ersoy's comments have sparked controversy (pic: Bora Bagcibasi)

She had her share of controversy over the years, most memorably when she was banned from stage after the 1980 military coup for having a sex-change.

Now she is facing up to four-and-a-half years in jail, accused of undermining support for Turkey's still-powerful military.

During an appearance as a juror on the local version of the TV talent show Pop Idol, the singer suggested Turkey's two-decade long fight with the Kurdish separatist PKK was not worth sacrificing a son for.

"Our children keep going there, there's tears, blood and funerals and still we utter the same cliches... Why can't we find a solution?" she asked.

Propaganda claim

An Istanbul prosecutor promptly charged Ms Ersoy with attempting to "turn the public against military service" - Article 318 of the penal code.

When the PKK started to kill again, the mood changed. People are dying every day
Mehmet Ali Birand
Newspaper columnist

His indictment describes military service as the sacred duty of every Turkish male, citing the proverb, "Every Turk is born a soldier".

"In a democracy, informing people, starting a debate, making a call to people to think is not a crime," the file reads. But it claims that Ms Ersoy's comments amount to deliberate propaganda against the military.

It was February and troops were four days into a major operation against the PKK inside northern Iraq.

Risky business

Nationalist fervour was running even higher than usual.

"Her words upset 70 million people," insists Savas Altay, one of the 10 complainants listed on the indictment.

A middle-aged man with a crew cut, he is wearing tracksuit trousers in the red and white of the national flag.

Bulent Ersoy (pic: Bora Bagcibasi)
Our children keep going there, there's tears, blood and funerals and still we utter the same cliches... Why can't we find a solution?
Bulent Ersoy

"What she said went way beyond her status as an artist," he says. "She hurt the families of our martyrs."

Like most proud grandfathers, Nuri Guresen has photographs of his young grandchildren on his office wall. But he also has a poster of his only son, dressed in military fatigues alongside a Turkish flag.

Hassan was 10 months into his military service close to the Iraqi border when he was killed last year by a remote-controlled mine set by the PKK.

Nuri wants the long conflict to end too, but the only solution he sees is a military one.

'Sensitive issue'

"People come on TV and say they won't send their children to fight. But when my grandson comes of age I'll send him too. I would go myself, if the army accepted me," he says, though his expression's more sad than angry.

"We only have one country. We have to defend it," he explains.

Nuri's sentiments are commonly heard here. But some suggest that behind closed doors, many Turks share Bulent Ersoy's exasperation.

The conflict, which began in 1984, has cost close to 40,000 lives.

"Most people are fed up of the Kurdish problem, and want a solution. You could hear their voices more three years ago when there was a ceasefire," explains respected newspaper columnist Mehmet Ali Birand.

"But when the PKK started to kill again, the mood changed. People are dying every day. It's a very sensitive issue."

But questioning the Turkish military, or the policy of conscription for all young males, can be a risky business at any time.

File picture of Turkish soldiers on the Turkey Iraq border
All young Turkish men face compulsory military service

Free-speech activists say Article 301 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to insult the Turkish nation and its institutions, is frequently used by the military. There are no official statistics.

Conscientious objection is another danger-zone.

Columnist Perihan Magden was prosecuted in 2006 for suggesting Turkey should consider alternative service for conscientious objectors.

Nationalist protestors and the mothers of soldiers killed in action yelled abuse and kissed the Turkish flag as she entered court.

Just last week, several dozen pacifists gathered on Istanbul's main pedestrian street.

They unfurled posters of Mehmet Bal, a conscientious objector who was detained earlier this month for avoiding military service.

Human rights groups allege he has been beaten while in custody.

'Heroic nation'

Amnesty International has called for his immediate release and an investigation.

The protestors - many of them young men of conscription age - shouted: "We won't fight, we won't die, we won't be the soldier of anybody."

It was a rare display for Turkey and it didn't last long.

"We are a heroic nation! We cannot be scared and run away from the military," one passer-by commented, somewhat bemused.

As she finished speaking, plain-clothes policemen swooped on the demonstrators.

"We're arresting them for dissuading people from military service," the police announced as they detained four men.

Beside him, one pacifist's knee shook with nerves.

The street protestors were bundled out of sight within minutes but the trial of singer-celebrity Bulent Ersoy on the same charge will certainly be played out in public.

She has already said she stands by her comments. So her case could spark a wider debate on the Kurdish conflict, conscription and the military.

It could just as easily scare other Turks into silence.

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