19 October 2010
Expelled from Turkey last summer American journalist Jake Hess wrote this article at the invitation of Firat News Agency
Muharrem Erbey, chairman of the Diyarbakır branch of the Human Rights Association (İHD), spent the final minutes of his workday on December 23, 2009 writing a New Year’s message to İHD’s supporters around the world. He was anxious to send out the letter that day, lest it lie unread in European inboxes during the holiday period stretching from Christmas to January 02.
Mr. Erbey’s message briefly discussed recent developments in Turkey’s human rights situation and concluded on a defiant note:
Our organization was bombed in 1993. We didn't give up. 22 of our members have been killed. We haven't given up. Our organization has been shut down and its archive confiscated scores of time. We haven't given up. Roughly 1,000 investigations and hundreds of lawsuits have been opened against our branch chairmen. We haven't given up. We've been threatened. We haven't given up, and we aren't going to.
While the rest of Diyarbakır slept, oblivious to the devastating shock and sadness set to descend on the city on that unforgettable day, Mr. Erbey, his wife, and two young children were awoken by a police raid in the early hours of Christmas Eve 2009. As if to call his bluff, ‘anti-terror’ police detained Mr. Erbey some twelve hours after he had penned his fateful words.
I immediately knew something was wrong when, later that morning, I saw a stream of people walking in and out of Diyarbakır İHD’s office, boxes in hand. İHD staff members who were observing outside explained to me that ‘anti-terror’ police were searching the office, confiscating the organization’s archives, and interrogating Mr. Erbey. Shocked, I tried to glimpse the action by peeking through the windows, but the police had drawn the blinds.
IN THE YEAR 2009, TWO NEW DAYS were added to the gloomy Kurdish calendar of misery and betrayal. April 14 and December 24, the dates when the KCK arrest operations respectively began and reached their peak, now take their place alongside March 16, the anniversary of the Halbja massacre, and February 15, the day Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in Kenya and handed over to Turkey.
Indeed, following the December 26, 2009 imprisonment of Muharrem Erbey, Hatip Dicle, eight BDP mayors and several other Kurdish activists, billboards appeared in Diyarbakır bearing the slogan: Dün Helepçe, bugün kelepçe --yesterday Halabja, today handcuffs. This was a reference to how those detained in the Christmas Eve operation had been handcuffed and then photographed as they waited in line to enter the Diyarbakır courthouse, generating intense feelings of anger and humiliation among Kurds.
But this wasn’t just a play on words. Even the most cynical, repression-weary Kurds acknowledge how arbitrary, indiscriminate, and cruel the KCK arrests have been -- comparable in this way to a chemical weapon, those responsible for the billboards seemed to suggest.
The first wave of arrests focused mostly on BDP (then DTP) activists who weren’t terribly well-known outside the party but had played an important organizational role, including in the party’s triumph in the 29 March 2009 local elections. Subsequent operations steadily climbed up the political hierarchy, encompassing former mayors and elected city council members; it almost seemed like the Turkish government was proceeding slowly to see how much it could get away with. Finally, amid complete international silence, the arrests peaked on December 24, 2009 with the arrest of elected mayors, Hatip Dicle, and Muharrem Erbey.
Analysts often interpret the arrests as ‘revenge’ for the BDP’s electoral victory against the AKP, but this is only part of the story. The more long-term goal of the operations has been to eradicate the new class of Kurdish political leaders and the movement they have dramatically expanded since the year 1999, when pro-Kurdish parties first came to power in southeastern municipalities, and Turkey was recognized as a candidate for EU membership. In subsequent years the Turkish political system gradually became more open following the de-escalation of fighting between the PKK and Turkish army and the initiation of legal reforms as part of the country’s EU membership bid.
As Professor Nichole Watts has pointed out, Kurdish activists have skillfully exploited this new political atmosphere to entrench the Kurdish political movement in stable institutional realms, and this in turn has opened up new opportunities for long-term organizing. The BDP and its activists are at the helm of a powerful, dynamic, mass-based fight for democracy with organized roots across the country, and the KCK arrest operations are aimed at crushing the individuals and institutional infrastructure behind this popular mobilization.
Alongside local BDP activists, many members of the BDP’s youth and women’s wings have been targeted since 14 April 2009. Among them is Azize Yağız, an extraordinary 24 year old Kurdish women’s rights activist with the Democratic Free Women’s Movement (DÖKH). In June, she told me in an interview that hundreds of DÖKH activists had been arrested and detained under the KCK operations, including some of their most talented and experienced members. Ms. Yağız was recently imprisoned on ‘terror’ charges for the fourth time in her short life.
The Democratic Society Congress (DTK) - an umbrella organization that brings representatives of civil society and various ethnic and religious communities together with the BDP in order to develop common positions and strategies - has also been heavily targeted for persecution. Participation in various DTK projects is being used as evidence against several of the most senior people who have been arrested in the KCK operations, including Muharrem Erbey and Leyla Güven, the elected mayor of Viranşehir.
The arrests haven‘t been confined to the BDP; the operation has been used as a pretext to clamp down on all varieties of Kurdish leaders and dissidents. An important example is Hamdiye Çiftçi, a young Kurdish journalist from Hakkari. I met her when I brought a human rights fact-finding delegation to that city in October 2009; she hurriedly, almost nervously, took footage of our delegation as we met with a local BDP activist, who has since been imprisoned. The reason she was anxious, she later told me, was that evening was setting in and she didn’t want to walk home in the dark, since she had been subjected to death threats, stalking, and other forms of repression for her brave reporting on state violence against Kurds. Ms. Çiftçi was thrown in prison on ‘terror’ charges in June 2010, no doubt as a punishment for her brave journalism, including her coverage of police using excessive and disproportionate force against young demonstrators.
In addition to Muharrem Erbey, several İHD activists have been locked up, including Ms. Vetha Aydın of the organization’s Siirt branch, and Roza Erdede, a Diyarbakır İHD board member.
If it weren’t obvious already, the 7,587 page indictment dealing with the most senior suspects targeted in the KCK operations leaves no doubt that these people are being persecuted for peaceful political activities. As Emin Aktar, chairman of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, has pointed out, no one is being accused of using weapons or bombs, only of organizing civil protests; peoples’ participation in funeral services for fallen PKK guerrillas is also repeatedly presented as criminal. Mr. Erbey’s offenses include participation in a commission of legal experts established under DTK auspices to study Turkey’s constitution and make proposals for its amendment.
The ‘evidence’ presented in the indictment consists overwhelmingly of tapped telephone conversations, private conversations recorded through remote listening technology, and statements made by secret witnesses. All of this has put Kurdish society under unbelievable stress; people feel like they’re being constantly watched and that anyone could be arrested at any minute for any reason. For that reason many Kurds have simply stopped using cell phones. If such prominent individuals as Muharrem Erbey, Hatip Dicle, and the elected mayors can be arrested and imprisoned on the flimsiest of evidence, how can anyone else feel safe from similar treatment?
I SPENT CHRISTMAS 2009 WAITING for news outside the Diyarbakır courthouse. As Mr. Erbey, Mr. Dicle, and the other detainees went before the judge, a sizeable crowd gathered in anticipation of the verdict. Everyone was saying that they’d be released, that there was no way they could be arrested.
Now, nine months later, the 151 most senior suspects in the KCK file are on trial in Diyarbakır, several for the first time since 14 April 2009, and a crowd has again assembled outside the courthouse. Lawyers involved in the case are once more expecting most of the detainees to be released. And, true to Mr. Erbey’s New Year’s letter, the imprisoned activists haven’t given up. In a situation when many would be contrite, they’re instead insisting on delivering their defenses in Kurdish, carrying out civil disobedience in the very heart of state power.
What will happen with the trial is anyone’s guess, but this much is clear: democracy in Turkey ultimately depends on a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. The PKK has announced its preparedness to disarm under UN supervision as part of an overall political settlement within Turkey‘s existing borders. They’ve recently declared yet another ceasefire with the goal of reaching a lasting agreement, but Turkish military and arrest operations against the Kurdish movement have only continued.
This is the core reality of the situation, and no amount of referendums, ‘openings’, or speeches can obscure this fact. The KCK trial in Diyarbakır represents an opportunity for the Turkish state to build positive momentum toward a conflict resolution process. If the suspects are released, it will create enormous relief and goodwill in the Kurdish areas. If, on the other hand, they’re sentenced to prison, the message conveyed by the arrests will be underlined: the political road to a solution is closed, so think of alternatives.