Writing from his cell in Erdine prison, Selahattin Demirtaş has put out an appeal for all opposition groups in Turkey to work together for the cause of democracy. In an article published in T24 on Monday, the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) describes Turkey’s next election, which is scheduled for 2023 but could be called earlier, as the most important election in the country’s history. He claims that no other election has combined so many dangers and so many opportunities. If Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) return to power they will attempt to institutionalise their authoritarian regime and make it permanent, but an opposition win, provided the opposition is able to move beyond a tactical anti-Erdoğan alliance, would provide the opportunity to institutionalise democracy.
Followers of Abdullah Öcalan’s philosophy regard liberal democracy as only a distant approximation to rule by the people, but when even that is under threat, we can see how important it is, and that it includes much more than periodic elections.
Democracy encompasses freedom of speech and assembly, including freedom to criticise the government and protest against it. It requires political actors to be able to work without fear of harassment, officially incited violence, or detention. And it needs an independent judiciary that is separate from government. In all these areas, democracy in Turkey is under attack. In today’s Turkey, any criticism of the government can lead to detention, and even children have been prosecuted for ‘insulting the president’.
The HDP has faced serious oppression since the June 2015 election, when it comfortably crossed the 10% election threshold and deprived Erdoğan of an overall majority. The oppression only increased with the wider clampdown that followed the failed coup of July 2016. Thousands of party members are in prison, including former MPs and mayors and the former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. On Monday, proceedings will resume in the Kobanê Case, in which 108 leading party members face life imprisonment for calling on people to protest against the ISIS siege of Kobanê in 2014. And later in the autumn, the case will begin for banning the party completely. Whether the HDP becomes the sixth pro-Kurdish party to be shut down will not depend on the legal arguments but on the political calculations of President Erdoğan.
Every week brings further examples of stifled freedoms and legal travesties in Turkey. To follow them all would be a full-time job, but, in order to give a sense of what is happening, I have pulled out critical stories that appeared last week in Bianet, whose reports particularly focus on human rights issues.
The week began with the announcement that Kurdish political prisoners were stopping their rotating hunger strike after 290 days. The strikers demand an end to the isolation of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who – contrary to international human rights law – is even prevented from contact with his lawyers and his family; and they also demand an end to human rights violations against other prisoners. The decision to end the strike appears to be a recognition that this was not getting the attention needed to bring any sort of success and that they must look for other forms of protest.
In Monday’s hearing in the case of Ayşe Gökkan, former mayor of Nusaybin and spokesperson for the Free Women’s Movement (TJA), who is accused under the ubiquitous ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, the presiding judge picked a fight with the defence lawyers and ordered them out of the court. When they objected, the judge called on the police to force the lawyers out by battering them. 78 bar associations have come together to condemn this attack and call for the suspension of the judge and police officers and for a proper investigation into what happened. Their statement points out that defence lawyers ‘are the most important elements of the right to a fair trial’.
Imprisoned former MP and HDP vice co-chair, Aysel Tuğluk, was informed that she must remain in prison despite a report from specialist doctors stating that her health condition requires her release. Her lawyers have put in an appeal.
Emine Şenyaşar was summoned to give a statement in response to charges of insulting the Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu. She has also been sued for insulting İbrahim Halil Yıldız, the AKP MP who, along with his entourage, was responsible for the death of her husband and two sons when the politician’s group was asked to leave the Şenyaşars’ shop and responded with violence. (I gave an outline of the case back in April, a third son has been imprisoned. ) For over six months, along with another son, she has been carrying out a vigil outside Urfa courthouse to demand justice for her family. This is the official response.
And Monday also saw one positive ruling – or rather an overdue overturning of a negative one. Turkey’s top court accepted an appeal by one of the academics who had signed the peace declaration against the violent crackdown on the Kurdish provinces in 2016. She had been sacked from her post and then given a travel ban that had prevented her from taking up a scholarship in Germany. She had gone to court over the ban and the court finally ruled that it had violated her rights.
On Tuesday, Bianet reported that investigations have opened into corruption by the municipality of Mardin totalling millions of dollars, including payment for non-existent work. Among those under investigation is the trustee mayor, who was appointed by central government to replace the democratically elected mayor from the HDP.
The European Court of Human Rights found in favour of the deposed mayor of Siirt, who was elected in 2014 for the HDP-linked Peace and Democracy Party, and is also being tried on ‘terrorism’ charges. The European court’s ruling concluded that his arrest and pretrial detention was unnecessary and violated his right to liberty and freedom of expression, and commented that his activities were a natural part of opposition politics.
An HDP MP submitted a parliamentary question asking why an anti-vaccination protest was permitted to go ahead without precautions, while a protest to mark World Peace Day was banned citing the pandemic.
On Wednesday, the courts rejected a request for release from detention by 18 lawyers from the Progressive Lawyers Association (ÇHD) and the People’s Law Bureau (HHB) who are appealing prison sentences. The case against them is based on witness statements by a professional witness who has paranoid schizophrenia – which caused him to attempt to murder his mother and sister – and is heavily medicated, but who, nevertheless appears as a witness in 141 different files. In a hunger strike last year undertaken by two ÇHD lawyers to demand a fair trial Ebru Timtik lost her life and Aytaç Ünsal seriously damaged his health.
On Thursday, the courts once again refused to release 83-year-old Mehmet Emin Özkan, who is seriously ill and has been in prison for a quarter of a century for a crime that even the public prosecutor has admitted he did not commit. Özkan was given a life sentence for the 1993 assassination of a Turkish brigadier on the basis of two ‘witnesses’ who subsequently withdrew their statements. A recent confession by a former intelligence officer has blamed the assassination and the subsequent Lice massacre on JİTEM, a secret unit of the Turkish army. The warden accompanying Özkan told the judge at Thursday’s hearing that ‘He cannot understand or hear you’, and he was thus unable to make a defence.
The municipality of Ağrı Patnos still has its HDP co-mayors, but Bianet reports that it has had its funding frozen – ostensibly to recover debt incurred by the previous AKP-led administration. Co-mayor, Müşerref Geçer, described this as an attempt to pit local people against the municipal authorities.
Tensions are growing in the public space in front of the HDP’s Ankara office. The government narrative claims that the HDP is not separate from the PKK – which Turkey classifies as a terrorist group – and that the PKK kidnaps young people to become guerrillas. Pressure is put on the parents of guerrillas to protest outside HDP offices. One father who was camped outside the HDP office in İzmir is alleged to have acted as the lookout for the murderer of Deniz Poyraz ,who was killed in the office in June. On Thursday he came to Ankara and the police are trying to clear a place for him in front of the main HDP building ahead of a major announcement that the HDP want to make from this space.
Amnesty International issued a dismissive verdict on the Turkish Government’s latest ‘human rights’ plans, observing, ‘Unless legislative and judicial reforms bring about concrete measures to ensure an independent and impartial judiciary, this latest judicial package will represent nothing more than cosmetic changes, thus failing to fundamentally reform the country’s deeply flawed judicial system.’
On Friday, it was announced that Ali Erbaş has been reappointed as head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, a position that has grown hugely in power and importance under Erdoğan. His sermons are read out in mosques across the country, and he recently took a central role in the ceremony to open a new court building and launch the new judicial year. His conservative Islamist views chime with Erdoğan’s own politics and threaten Turkey’s secular constitution.
Turkey’s human rights violations are not, of course, restricted by its borders.
On Friday morning, Yasin Bulut, a long-time member of the PKK, was shot dead in in Sulaymaniyah, where he had gone for medical treatment. And another Kurd from Turkey, Ferhat Bariş, Kondu was shot and wounded in his workplace in Sulaymaniyah the day before. The PKK blames both attacks on the Turkish Intelligence Service (MIT) and calls for action from the Kurdistan Regional Government and from the authorities in Sulaymaniyah to prevent further attacks.
In the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish forces routinely use chemical weapons to attempt to suffocate the PKK guerrillas in their tunnels. This week, in the Ain Issa region of Syria, they are reported to have used cluster bombs, which often go on maiming people long after they are dropped and were outlawed in 2010. Of course targeting civilians and deliberately destroying infrastructure are war crimes too.
Meanwhile, the mercenary jihadi groups that control the regions under Turkish occupation are presiding over a bloody dystopia. The Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights and the Kurdish Centre for Studies & Legal Consultancy have been monitoring the situation in Turkish-occupied Afrîn and have just published the report they submitted to the United Nations. This shows the occupying groups, often with the direct involvement of Turkey, exploiting and brutalising the original residents and trying to drive them away to bring about demographic change. The report details examples of detentions, beatings, rapes, torture, illegal transfer of detainees to Turkey, forced marriage, looting and property theft, ransom and protection money, mass destruction of olive trees, and the desecration and pillaging of cultural heritage. It also describes the construction of new housing – often funded by Gulf-backed charities – to bring in people from other parts of Syria and change the demographic makeup.
For the Kurds of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, freedoms are not just restricted by Turkish intervention and by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s subservience to Turkey. There are huge democratic deficiencies within their own government, which is riven with corruption and controlled through patronage networks, and has been cracking down on criticism.
Kurdistan Watch reports that 81 political activists and journalists who were arrested for taking part in protests last year are now on hunger strike to protest against torture and denial of their rights. Activist Badal Barwari and journalist Omed Baroshki, who were due to face trial on Wednesday for leading peaceful protests against cuts and delays in civil service salaries, had their case adjourned for the third time. They have been on remand in prison for over a year. And a Yazidi journalist in Duhok has been detained since Wednesday after he criticised Yazidis close to the ruling KDP.
As this column frequently observes, all these attacks on democracy and human rights are not enough to prevent the United States and European countries from working closely with Turkey and with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, because this coincides with their own perceived national interests. Just this week, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers again kicked the ball into the long grass and delayed putting any pressure on Turkey to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ clear rulings for the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş and human rights activist and philanthropist, Osman Kavala.
The majority of people in the US and Europe would not choose that their government support other governments that deny freedoms and crack down on democracy; but, although they are told that they live in democracies, there is generally little evidence of democratic impact on foreign policy – even less than in other policy areas. This doesn’t mean, though, that there is nothing that people can do to support democratic forces in places such as Turkey and Kurdistan. Even in a flawed democracy, governments have to take notice of popular opinion if that opinion is strong enough.
This week produced a couple of positive democratic signs. The Norwegian elections saw two new faces join Europe’s Kurdish MPs, as well as another Nordic country return to social democracy; and, in the United States, amendments being put forward to the upcoming 2022 National Defence Authorisation Act address the activities of the fascist Grey Wolves and the use of US parts in Turkish drones. These follow other moves by concerned legislators, but we can’t rely on the actions of individual politicians. For real change – the sort of change that forced the end of apartheid – politicians need to feel the force of a mass movement behind them
In an interview for Jacobin, published on Thursday, Noam Chomsky reminds us that, ‘Every popular movement, every major cause that’s been won over the centuries, has been won by people who are working on the ground.’ Not just the leaders who we celebrate, but ‘people whose names nobody knows’.