Turkish leaders take harder line against critics at home

The Turkish military regime seems to be hardening its position toward its critics at home and abroad as it tries to shape the nation's future political system.

The military leaders leave no doubts about their intention to return to civilian rule as promised in their timetable.

But they are also giving clear signs that their concept of democracy is different from the system that was in force in Turkey before they took over 19 months ago.

Gen. Kenan Evren, the leader of the ruling National Security Council, has repeatedly pointed out in recent statements that all necessary measures will be taken to prevent Turkey from returning to the conditions that existed before the coup.

He makes it clear that the government will not tolerate any challenges to this policy and will not hesitate to take harsh action against those who try to turn the clock back under the name of freedom and democracy.

A series of recent events is seen as an indication of this new hard line.

The recent arrest of Bulent Ecevit, former Social Democratic prime minister, highlights the toughness. Ecevit, who served two months in prison earlier this year for attacking a government decision to dissolve political parties, was arrested for giving interviews to the foreign news media. In those interviews he complained about current restrictions and criticized the generals' concept of democracy.

Ecevit will appear before a military court April 29 on charges of openly defying a government decree banning public statements by former politicians (providing for a maximum nine-month jail sentence). He also faces charges of violating an article of the penal code that stipulates a minimum five-year sentence for propagating information that discredits Turkey.

General Evren has made it clear recently that ''those who persist in defying previous warnings and try to appear as martyrs for their personal political ambitions will receive the punishment they deserve.''

This leaves no doubt that Ecevit will receive a heavy sentence this time. Protests and criticism abroad about this sentence will be disregarded - and even taken as a hostile attitude and intervention in Turkey's domestic affairs.

Ecevit's imprisonment is unlikely to provoke reaction in Turkey, as his earlier jail sentence has shown. The self-controlled Turkish press will not make it an issue. Ecevit's former party remains closed.

Moreover, Ecevit had lost a good deal of his popularity prior to the military coup and the man in the street does not seem to care much about him anyway.

Therefore there is little likelihood of the start of a pro-Ecevit movement in Turkey if he goes to jail. Officials say Ecevit wants to play the role of a martyr abroad and thus provoke foreign pressure on Ankara.

But General Evren warned against ''illusions that foreign leaders or institutions would come to the rescue'' of the former political leader.

For the military rulers, the Ecevit case is a symbolic one. They insist the country needs political peace and stability in the present transition period. Hence the ban on all political activities and public statements. Any resistance to this rule would cause unrest and endanger the return to civilian rule. The present regime could not show weakness and tolerate such action that could easily lead to the pre-1980 conditions.

Fear of a return to the chaotic situation before the coup appears to be the major reason for the harsh measures the military administration has taken recently including:

* The order to arrest 44 leftist intellectuals, members of the so-called Peace Association (25 of them have so far surrendered).

* Legal proceedings against 132 parliamentarians from Ecevit's party, alleged to be involved in the subversive activities of an extremist leftist labor organization ''Disk.'' Some 50 leading members of the group face a death sentence.

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