Turkey: A people imprisoned

Once seen as a moderate party, the AKP government in Turkey is using anti-terrorism legislation to unleash a wave of repression against the left and the Kurdish movement. Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod spoke to activists in the country

April 27, 2013 · 9 min read

Demonstration outside the court in Ankara in October 2012. Photo: Isabelle Merminod

Lami Özgen can speak in a loud voice. This is useful for trade union rallies, which are often held in the open air outside high security courts these days in Turkey. He is the president of KESK, Turkey’s independent confederation of public service trade unions.

On the day of our interview with him in December 2012, he was organising a rally for 15 KESK women trade unionists facing terrorism charges. He himself is on appeal against one conviction and awaiting indictment in another case, both for trade union activities.

At the time of the interview, 67 members of KESK were in prison facing terrorism charges. On 19 February this year, another 169 KESK members were taken into custody in one of the biggest police operations since 2011.

‘Political genocide’

Lami Özgen says of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government: ‘We cannot be optimistic. The new policy of the government is that they do not shut the institutions but pick up their officials, activists and others to prevent their activities.’ This allows the government to say to the international community, particularly the EU, that civil society is still alive as the hollowed-out institutions are still in place.

Sebahat Tuncel, a member of the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), the legal pro-Kurdish progressive opposition party, jokes with the interpreter as she is being interviewed on 25 November 2012. She is, at present, a member of the Turkish parliament. But she has just been sentenced to eight years on charges of being a member of a terrorist organisation. She says that if the supreme court confirms her conviction, the Turkish parliament will remove her immunity. Elected to parliament in 2007 while in prison, she may return there directly from parliament if her immunity is lifted.

‘In practical terms the BDP is already closed because since 2009 [the police] have taken . . . members, officials, managers.’ The numbers change as people are released and others take their place. She calls it ‘political genocide’.

Tuncel says that five previous pro-Kurdish parties have been closed down. Why does the government not just do the same with the BDP? ‘If they close the BDP they are going to be in a difficult situation in front of international opinion and Turkish society. They do not want to be seen as an undemocratic country,’ she says.

Thousands in prison

The International Crisis Group, a respected NGO working on conflict resolution, estimates that the number of people in prison on terrorism charges was about 7,000 in August 2012. Andrew Finkel, who writes for the International Herald Tribune, quotes a figure of about 8,000 in October 2012.

Most of the defendants are Kurdish. Most are charged with being members or supporters of the KCK (the Union of Kurdish Communities). Prosecutors allege the KCK is an urban wing of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the armed Kurdish movement fighting for autonomy. The defendants are from every part of society: students, academics, lawyers, journalists, elected BDP mayors, trade unionists and members of the BDP party.

Once picked up by the police, activists face anti-terrorism laws drafted in such wide terms that they allow prosecutors to lay charges against almost anyone. ‘Individuals have been prosecuted and tried under the anti-terrorism legislation . . . simply for having participated in public demonstrations by showing banners and shouting slogans,’ according to the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers in a report in mid-2012.

If charged, activists are put before Turkey’s justice system, which has been condemned by human rights agencies and the European Court of Human Rights. Defence lawyers don’t have the same access to evidence as the state; very long pre-trial detention is the norm; the prosecution use secret witnesses; a close relationship exists between prosecutors and judges; and the judiciary is not independent. ‘Judges and prosecutors at different levels [give] precedence to the protection of the state over the protection of human rights,’ warned Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, in a January 2012 report about the Turkish justice system.

Blocking local government

In 2009, the local elections gave an electoral bloody nose to the AKP and delivered large gains to Kurdish politicians in the Kurdish areas. The AKP’s share of the vote rose from 34.4 percent in the 2002 national elections, climbing to 42.2 percent in the 2004 local elections and then 46.6 percent in the 2007 national elections. But the 2009 local elections saw it fall back to 38.9 per cent. The BDP’s predecessor, the pro-Kurdish DTP, won 59 mayoral posts – up from 36. But in December the DTP was closed down by the constitutional court. The arrests and trials started in the same year.

Lami Özgen explains the reason for the continued arrests: ‘In 2014 there will be elections for municipal governments. The government wants to capture the administration in the provinces, especially where it was held by Kurdish parties. So as a part of this policy many officials from the BDP and the other opposition voices and trade unionists are arrested . . . Many mayors in the eastern and south east region [the Kurdish area] are arrested. Not only mayors but also the members of the municipality are also arrested. And therefore the government blocks the work of the municipality.’

Anti-communism and local politics

Büşra Ersanlı, 62 years old and a university professor of political science, is a defendant in one of the trials. She replies to our questions amid the traditional flow of glasses of tea. She was imprisoned in the 1970s. Prosecutors are now demanding at least 15 years imprisonment.

Ersanlı says that the various strands of the right wing in Turkey are unified by their anti-communism. Anti-communism has been a force in Turkish politics since the creation of the Turkish state in 1923.

She says that human rights violations had encouraged Kurds to become active in local politics: ‘It is easier for people to participate in local politics because of the face-to-face relations, most especially women. So that created organisational activity in Kurdish cities . . . The Kurdish people, especially the left wing and the poor, have been affected in a similar way. All they could do was local politics. That is why they became active and dynamic, and even creative, at local level.’

She says that also there had been an upsurge of local political action as a result of the 1999 earthquake in the Marmara region of Turkey. The absence of an adequate central government response to the loss of life and damage required local political responses.

Ersanlı says that local politics have become more important in Turkish politics: ‘So if you relate this to decentralisation and left-wing politics, then [local politics] becomes dangerous and [controlling it] becomes part of anti-communism.’

Kurdish autonomy and democratisation

‘This is an authoritarian country, it is patriarchal, so we always have fathers and big brothers who decide for us. Therefore the women’s struggle is the most important in our country: first, women’s and second, the Kurdish political movement. Without these two there can be no democratisation,’ says Büşra Ersanli.

The AKP government was first elected in 2002, led by a former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is still the prime minister. Many Turks feared another military coup because the AKP was an Islamic party and the military had intervened previously using the protection of Turkey’s secular state as a justification. But the army did not react, although some military officers have since been charged and convicted for plotting a coup in 2003.

In 2002, many Turks and Kurds hoped for democratisation and an end to authoritarian government because the AKP seemed open to a pragmatic approach. Negotiations with the EU seemed to be going smoothly. The EU’s requirements for reform were transformed into positive political change in the first few years of the AKP’s control. Negotiations with the PKK appeared to be moving towards a successful conclusion.

But by 2009, with entry to the EU becoming less likely, reform slowed. In 2011 the AKP won the national elections with 49 per cent of the vote and since then appears to have become more authoritarian. There are increased casualties on both sides in the war between the army and the PKK in the south east; religious education has been expanded; education reforms encourage girls to leave school earlier. And arrests under terrorism laws are increasing. For example, in August 2012, the Turkish press reported that the minister of justice had stated that between January and August, 2,824 high school and university students had been arrested or charged.

Hunger strike

In September 2012, Kurdish prisoners across Turkey went on hunger strike. They demanded the right to speak Kurdish in court, along with the right to mother-tongue education. They also called on the government to grant better conditions to Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, held in isolation on the island of Imrali.

At the last moment, with fears that prisoners would soon be dying, Öcalan sent out a message saying that the hunger strike should stop. It ended on 18 November as reports circulated in the Turkish press that negotiations between the AKP government and the PKK were re-starting.

Kurdish sources have suggested that the murder of the three Kurdish women activists in Paris in January 2013 was an attempt to stop any negotiations. On 25 February the Turkish press quoted Öcalan as saying that continued negotiations required that parliamentary parties agree to the right to mother-tongue education, a redefinition of citizenship to stop discrimination against Kurds, and the decentralisation of the Turkish state by increasing local government powers.

Continued repression?

Sebahat Tuncel says: ‘We are realistic people, we are not in a daydream. We know that the Kurdish problem has a history of 200 years in the Middle East and 100 years in Turkey. We know that this problem [will not be] solved suddenly.’

Büşra Ersanlı says she fears a cycle of reciprocal violence if the trials and repression continue. But she also has hope that ‘there is the chance of a swift re-direction by the government in the belief that they could better survive as a political power if they stopped the arrests. And that is correct, of course.’

She declares: ‘I always want to believe that some people are intelligent enough within the government to change their attitude.’

Our thanks to Lami Özgen, SebahatTuncel and Dr Büşra Ersanlı for agreeing to be interviewed despite the circumstances in Turkey. Sign the online petition.

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