In order to help peoples of Turkey, European citizens should focus on exposing their own governments’ wrongdoings, popular Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş said in response to a question by German journalist Günter Wallraff in an unconventional interview conducted by Westdeutschen Rundfunk’s (WDR) Fulya Canşen.
Canşen waited for years for an opportunity to interview the former co-chair of Turkey’s second largest opposition bloc who has spent the last six years behind bars. With no end in sight to Demirtaş’s imprisonment, deemed unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) itself, the Turkish-German journalist found a novel way: Asking for video messages from prominent figures in German media and politics, Canşen conducted the interview via Demirtaş’s lawyers.
Demirtaş ran against then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the 2014 presidential elections and won 9.76 percent of the vote. While he enjoyed great popularity among Kurds, the real unexpected shift was the effect Demirtaş had on Turkey’s urban youth and democratically-minded Turkish voters. He ran for president again in 2018, this time from his prison cell in the northernmost Turkish province of Edirne – he had been arrested along with several other Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MPs, mayors and officials in 2016 on charges of terrorism. The ECHR has ruled that the charges were “politically motivated”.
A curated section of the interview, translated by Medya News, follows.
Günter Wallraff, writer and journalist: How can a democratic country be built where arbitrariness, human rights violations and state crimes are the order of the day?
Selahattin Demirtaş: It will not be easy to reshape the future of Turkey. Please don’t take this as a one-to-one analogy or comparison, but who could have imagined that the Germany of the 1940s to 1950s would develop into what it is today? Only madmen could have claimed that.
Navid Kermani, writer: What can the European Union do to support the Turkish people’s struggle for freedom?
Selahattin Demirtaş: If you want to do something for me, something for all of us, you have to expose the hypocrisy of your own governments. You must resist their policies of exploitation. Expose how an authoritarian politician like Erdoğan is shaken hands with at every opportunity for negotiations over refugees. You cannot save us and we cannot save you. But we can fight together and save ourselves together. So it’s either together or not at all.
Fatih Akın, director: How can we convince racists?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Raising society’s awareness against racism cannot be achieved through education alone. We need a fully democratic government, transparency and accountability in the state as well as in the government, an ideology-free education system, a well-functioning justice system, a fair distribution of income, a free media and, above all, coming to terms with the past. Otherwise, overt or covert racism will not disappear by itself. After all, that is what we are fighting for.
Sven Lorig, ARD presenter: As a father of three, how do you give your children hope when they visit you in prison?
Selahattin Demirtaş: I have heard that you spread hope and joy throughout Germany in the morning. How do you manage that in this terrible world in the midst of so much evil? I am sure it is not easy, because I try to do the same from my prison cell. The difference in doing this on screen or from your cell is: you get paid for it and I get punished. Otherwise, I guess we do the same thing.
Can Dündar, journalist in exile: Are you preparing for a post-Erdoğan Turkey?
Selahattin Demirtaş: I am very hopeful about the future, and that is not a vain or empty hope. Because in the midst of all this pollution, there are still millions of people who are resolutely resisting, Kurds, Turks, Alevis, Sunnis and especially young people and women.
Dunja Hayali, journalist and presenter: How do you bear being in prison, innocent as you claim to be?
Selahattin Demirtaş: I don’t claim that I am innocent, I know that I am innocent, only the others claim that I am guilty. The political climate in Istanbul and in Turkey as a whole is changing. Do I have hope that one day we will see justice? Yes, that is our only hope. And with our struggle here, we are already helping to change the political atmosphere in the country.
Frederike Geerdink, former Istanbul correspondent: Were you able to learn a new profession in prison?
Selahattin Demirtaş: My original and first profession was a plumber and I am still good at it. Then I became a lawyer, and in prison I also became a bit of a writer. Recently I started playing the violin. When the barbershop in prison was closed because of the pandemic, I learned to cut my own hair and that of my cellmate for two years. But if I opened a shop, I would probably be my only customer.
Hasnain Kazim, former Istanbul correspondent: What will Erdoğan’s end actually look like?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Erdoğan came to power through elections and will go through elections, there is no other way.
Gor Yeranyan, journalist: Do you consider the democratisation of Turkey, the recognition of the Armenian genocide, individual rights and human rights, the struggle of the Kurds and other minorities for equal rights, as separate issues or are they all connected for you?
Selahattin Demirtaş: Human rights are always one entity, as is democracy. You cannot judge human rights by individuals, groups, classes, genders, identities or by geographical boundaries, No exceptions apply either.