When President Erdoğan attempted to taunt Selahattin Demirtaş for not having held any political rallies, the imprisoned former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) tweeted a challenge. He called on Erdoğan to let him out of prison for two hours to go to Yenikapı in İstanbul with a single megaphone, then to go to the same site himself a day later “with all means of the state”, and whoever gathered fewer people would quit politics. Erdoğan did not respond.
Of course, he could not be seen to compete according to Demirtaş’ rules, but there was also another reason why he would not want to accept such a challenge. As this week’s HDP regional congress in Istanbul demonstrated, despite all the oppression, the party and its supporters remain uncowed. More than that – they are defiant. A video of the packed hall with thousands of delegates singing the revolutionary song, Çerxa Şoreşê (The Wheel of Revolution), sent a thrill of excitement down the spines of supporters, but must have created a rather different shiver for those in government.
The day after the congress, the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced an investigation in response to a complaint that “slogans praising the leader of the terrorist organisation were chanted and organisational anthems were sung by the participants”. However, this can’t undo the force of such a big and public display of resistance.
HDP MPs also continue their defiance in the Parliamentary chamber.
On Tuesday, Muazzez Orhan Işık asked the government, “Why are you siding with gangs like ISIS, FSA and Taliban?” While Meral Danış Beştaş observed, “The whole world sees Turkey as a friend of ISIS. They are killing Kurds on your behalf. Turkey is known as the best partner and friend of ISIS in the international arena and you know that. Turkey is on the gray list as it does not hinder the movement of international financing of ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
HDP MP, Feleknas Uca, criticised the Turkish state’s ban on education in her mother tongue by attempting to repeat her parliamentary speech in German and Kurdish – though she was interrupted. She asked the government why, when they demand mother tongue education for Turkish children in Germany, they feel uncomfortable with mother tongue education for Kurds in Turkey: “Why are you so afraid of Kurdish?” On another occasion, she told the government, in a rapid and angry outpouring of forbidden Kurdish, “You will go, HDP is coming. You failed… HDP will bring freedom, unity and victory for the people.”
With so many HDP members in prison, including former MPs and co-mayors, a new campaign has been started that asks people to show their solidarity by writing to one of a list of forty imprisoned HDP politicians. There is also a new twinning campaign linking MEPs with elected deputies, from various countries, who are under threat.
Garibe Gezer, the political prisoner who died last week in suspicious circumstances after publicising her complaints of extensive and brutal mistreatment, was honoured at the HDP’s Istanbul congress, and her case continues to make news.
In Monday’s parliamentary debate, Meral Danış Beştaş pointed out that four days had passed with no investigation into her death, while disciplinary investigations had been launched within 24 hours over the protests of her fellow political prisoners, who had reacted to her death by banging on their cell doors.
By Wednesday, an investigation was said to be taking place, but under a confidentiality order. There can be little expectation of any genuine scrutiny, especially with the autopsy having been carried out without Gezer’s lawyers present. A lawyer from the Legal Assistance Bureau Against Sexual Harassment and Rape in Detention told Bianet, “we do not know what kind of action this prosecutor, who ignored Garibe’s statement about sexual assault, will take in the file on her death”.
Meanwhile, Mezopotamya News Agency reminded readers that the ‘anonymous witness’ whose testimony formed the basis of Gezer’s conviction had been uncontactable for five years, and so couldn’t be interrogated when the case came up for appeal.
When Gezer’s body was brought to Mardin for burial last week, it was left for two hours on a trailer at the airport, and her family was told that they couldn’t use the municipal funeral vehicle and must find their own transport. Now, Mardin Bar Association have announced that they will file a criminal complaint against this discrimination.
Garibe Gezer was buried next to her brother, Bilal, who was killed in the Kobanê protests seven years ago. Her mother told the crowd that had gathered at the graveyard in a show of solidarity, “Garibe is not only my Garibe, she is a daughter of Kurdistan.”
This week, the prison system, which refuses to release seriously ill prisoners or to provide them with proper medical care, claimed two more victims. Halil Güneş succumbed to cancer after 29 years’ incarceration with multiple health problems resulting from torture and poor prison conditions. On the same day, Abdülrezzak Şuyur died of lung cancer without being given treatment and without contact with his family for his last two weeks.
Others could follow. A signature campaign was recently launched for the temporary release of a further severely ill cancer patient, Ali Osman Köse. It argues that, “Punishment can be carried out at any time, but treatment cannot always be done.”
Last weekend, freedom of speech took a further blow as Erdoğan signaled more clampdowns on social media. In a video message to a government-organised conference, he described social media as “one of the main sources of threats to today’s democracy”. The next day, police raided the homes of four Youtubers in Antalya. While many people rely on social media to provide an alternative to the, mainly government-controlled, mainstream sources, Erdoğan’s government has been discussing five-year prison terms for social media users who spread what they define as ‘fake news’.
One subject on which the government is anxious to restrict discussion is the state of the economy and the very real difficulties that this is creating for a large proportion of the population. Growing numbers of businesses are now on the point of collapse, while people wait in lengthening queues for subsidised bread. Even a planned student forum on poverty and the economic crisis was violently prevented, with scores of students detained.
While the minimum wage was raised on Thursday by 50%, this is not enough to compensate for inflation – and it will be of no benefit to those without work or relying on the shadow economy. Bianet notes that “The minimum wage is currently below the starvation and poverty lines.” And that, “Among the European countries, Turkey has the highest share of workers with wages around the minimum wage.” The Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions (KESK) is calling on people to join its mass rallies against insupportable living costs taking place this weekend – in Izmir and Amed today and Istanbul and Ankara tomorrow.
Triggered by Twitter speculations from a law professor close to Erdoğan, there has been much discussion about the possibility of the economic collapse being used as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency, and so delaying elections that Erdoğan and his party are increasingly likely to lose.
Against this backdrop, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for the presidency – provided he is accepted by the opposition Nation Alliance. He also said the he welcomed the statement of his main Alliance partner, Meral Akşener, the leader of the Good Party (İYİ), that she would like to be Prime Minister.
While Kılıçdaroğlu has made some fence-mending speeches about addressing past wrongs, he is very much a candidate of the pro-NATO establishment, and leads a party descended from Kemalist nationalism – while Akşener shares the far-right views of the National Movement Party (MHP) from which she broke away. Real social progress – especially for Kurds and other minorities – will only come if the HDP can leverage its king-maker role and the mass support so evident this week in Istanbul.
The Kurdish freedom movement has also been resisting internationally. This week saw the launch of a petition to remove the PKK from the European Union’s terrorist list, with 1000 initial signatures that embrace almost 100 parliamentarians and three dozen lawyers, as well as municipal councillors, academics, doctors, trade unionists, journalists, and writers. Well-known names include: Yanis Varoufakis, Greek economist and politician; Jean Luc Mélanchon, MP and French presidential candidate for the Union Populaire; Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; Jim Kelman, Scottish writer and winner of the Booker Prize; Ken Loach, British filmmaker and twice winner of the Palme d’Or; and Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek.
The petition, which is open for more signatures, argues that delisting is correct both legally – citing the European Court of Justice and the Belgian courts – and politically. Delisting would remove a barrier to the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question; it would acknowledge the PKK’s role in liberating large parts of Syria and Iraq from ISIS (while ISIS was receiving Turkish support); it would recognise the PKK’s mass support among Kurds in the Middle East and the diaspora; it would recognise the PKK’s role in supporting women’s freedom; and it would make it harder for Turkey to use the “terrorist” designation to de-legitimise and suppress opposition – and effectively use the EU to whitewash authoritarian attacks.
While no-one expects this petition alone to achieve its ultimate objective, it is a step on the way to getting the idea of delisting more widely accepted, and it demonstrates that its arguments are finding a growing resonance in the political mainstream.
Yesterday was the final day of the ‘Time for Freedom’ vigil outside the Council of Europe, which began on 1 December. Each day, demonstrators came from different Kurdish groups and different parts of Europe to remind the Council of its duty to protect Abdullah Öcalan’s human rights and end his isolation, and three delegations met with members of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
Human Rights/Freedom for Öcalan Day made this a particularly busy week for campaigning, and I have tried to give a sense of this with a round-up of actions reported by Firat News Agency.
Marches for World Freedom for Öcalan Day were held in many cities over last weekend, including Paris, Toronto, Nicosia and several places in Germany. In Hanover they partnered with Tamils who were also protesting for Human Rights Day. In Marseille, the march was preceded by a week of campaigning in the city centre – which included collecting signatures for delisting the PKK.
On Monday, a rally in Hanover protested Turkey’s attacks on the Yazidi homeland of Şengal where Turkey has followed last week’s assassination with a bomb attack on the Peoples Assembly building in Xanesor. Tuesday, marchers in Athens condemned Öcalan’s isolation and Turkey’s attacks on Şengal and use of chemical gas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Wednesday, a rally in Dusseldorf Railway Station called for freedom for political prisoners, and especially for sick prisoners, and a rally in Berlin focussed on freedom for female political prisoners. Wednesday – as every Wednesday since 25 January – Kurds demanding Öcalan’s freedom protested outside the UN in Geneva and in Lausanne. From Monday to Wednesday, Kurdish youth organised a three day ‘Long March’ round the Paris suburbs – despite having to resist the French police, who tried to restrict the march and to detain some of the protestors. Thursday, banners and fireworks at Basel Railway Station drew attention to Turkey’s use of chemical weapons. And, away from the streets, a Social Democratic Party motion against the closure of the HDP, was accepted by the Austrian Parliament without opposition.
Like all political protest, street actions serve a triple purpose. Along with other meetings and events that I have not listed here, they reinforce solidarity within the movement. They also publicise the issues with the aim of forcing change – both through direct pressure on the authorities, and also indirectly through broadening support for and involvement in the campaign. Support from other individuals and organisations, such as trade unions, makes demands harder for politicians to ignore. Thought has to be given to engaging with a wider public – through well-planned times and locations, clear provision of information, and engagement with local media, as well as through varying the forms of action. I suspect that many of those involved in recent events would agree that this wider engagement is often the area in which they are least well prepared and so least effective. It is also an area in which English language media and its readers can play an important part.
Returning to high-level diplomacy, this week, members of North and East Syria’s Syrian Democratic Council visited the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, and also took part in a conference in Stockholm to discuss possibilities for democracy in Syria.
Despite international focus on the fight against ISIS, and the obvious risks posed by the prison and detention camps, there is still no international help forthcoming for trying ISIS prisoners, and very little movement on the repatriation of foreign fighters – not even help with improving living conditions or with re-education. Once again, the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria has reminded “international forces” that they need help with this “ticking time bomb” that has the potential to affect the whole world. 3 It has been revealed that Al Hol Camp, which houses the families of ISIS fighters, many of whom have tried to turn it onto an ISIS mini state, has witnessed 126 murders in the course of a year, and a further 41 murder attempts.
Firat News Agency has interviewed captured agents who worked for Turkey in North and East Syria. One claimed to have got involved to pay for drugs. Another commented, “I realised that, as an agent, I was damaging the region. The stability of the region is being destroyed. The Turkish state wants to trigger a crisis in the region and is using young people for it.
A further twist to the banditry that Turkey has brought to Syria, was marked by protests outside the Turkish embassy in Iran. The protestors were the families of nine Kurdish Iranian refugees, who had escaped to Turkey and who were detained 119 days ago and handed over to Turkey’s Proxies in the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA). It seems that they claimed to be Syrian in an attempt to avoid deportation (Syrians qualify for Temporary Protection status), but the FSA are holding them hostage. Their jailors have made repeated demands for ransom, and have also demanded the release of FSA prisoners held by the Syrian government in exchange. The refugees’ last contact with their relatives was a one-minute phone call sixty days ago.
And, as if North and East Syria were not isolated enough, the Kurdistan Regional Government has again closed the one border crossing between the region and Iraq. This followed a demonstration by young people from the Syrian side. The demonstrators were supporting protest action against the Kurdistan Regional Government’s refusal to return the bodies of PKK fighters killed by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga. This protest, which is centred on the mothers of the dead fighters, has now lasted 2½ months, and several of the young activists were injured by the KDP border guards. The KDP’s support for Turkey against the Kurds of the PKK adds yet another hurdle for the resistance to overcome.