Pro-Kurdish HDP party incapacitated as politicians imprisoned
Erdogan continues clampdown on Turkey’s Kurds, who comprise one-fifth of the population
Cengiz Topbasli stands in front of a poster depicting the jailed co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Figen Yüksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas. Photograph: Stephen Starr
When Sinan Mehmetoglu graduated from university with a degree in architecture in June, underneath his garb he wore a T-shirt depicting a photo of his mother and the words: “We will not forget you.”
Sengul Mehmetoglu is the district leader of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), a small Kurdish political group. She has been imprisoned without charge at the Elazig T Type Prison for more than eight months.
Mehmetoglu (23) says he has been denied visitation to his mother for two months. On a cool summer’s day in Kars, he spends several hours waiting for a phone call from her that doesn’t materialise. There is no indication, he says, when or if she will be charged or released. “We hear nothing, we are told nothing.”
Sengul’s predicament is not uncommon in today’s Turkey. Millions of Kurds have been left without a political voice following a campaign of arrests and repression against their political leaders and representatives. Dozens of parliamentary and local politicians have been imprisoned, including both co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Turkey’s third-largest party. Some face a lifetime behind bars if convicted of terrorist-related crimes. Others have fled the country.
“It’s deeply damaging to Turkey’s democracy that the government is locking up the leaders and MPs of an opposition party that received five million votes in the last election,” said Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighed in last month by making accusatory remarks about the HDP’s imprisoned co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas. “We don’t have the authority to release terrorists from jail,” was his reply to a question during the G20 summit in Hamburg. Government critics say the president’s remarks may influence the course of Demirtas’s case. In February, Demirtas was sentenced to five months in prison for “insulting the Turkish nation”. The separate, pending charges against him of “terrorist propaganda” carry a far more severe sentence.
Kurds make up about 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, and for decades they have had their ethnic and social rights repressed. A 40-year war has taken the lives of about 30,000 people, mostly civilians, in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Relations between Ankara and separatist Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) did improve for a time following the easing of restrictions on Kurdish rights in the late 2000s, and a short-lived peace process was launched in 2013.
But when the ruling AK Party’s majority was ended by the entry to parliament of the HDP following elections two years ago, the violence returned. Military operations against separatist Kurdish youths in cities such as Cizre, Nusaybin and Diyarbakir followed, reducing neighbourhoods to rubble and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Dozens of police officers and soldiers have been assassinated by rebel Kurds. The US, EU and Turkey designate the PKK a terrorist organisation.
HDP representative Cengiz Topbasli says the party’s biggest problem now is that it has essentially been incapacitated. “How can we act as an opposition party when so many [of our politicians] are in prison?” he says from the party’s Kars office, an unadorned room in the city centre.
“Our supporters are afraid to come to our office. If we go to speak with people in a village, soldiers will arrive. We recently sent our members and supporters Ramadan greetings on Whatsapp, but some replied to ask us not to contact them anymore because they are afraid.”
Topbasli has been forced to sign at a local police station twice a week following his involvement in an opposition rally in the nearby town of Sarikamis in April that, he says, was violently broken up by riot police. He and dozens of other local Kurdish politicians are banned from travelling outside their home provinces.
Local families and small businesses are scarcely better-off. Topbasli says some face economic ruin because of a systematic campaign by the state to deny them credit from banks. Another major issue facing Kurds and others in the mostly rural east is the recent trend of importing cattle from overseas – including from Ireland – that has led to a fall in market prices. Some local producers believe that to be a political move enacted to punish them.
“The government won’t make any dialogue with the HDP . . . Erdogan wants a war,” says Topbasli, adding that he does not consider the PKK a terrorist group.
With Erdogan increasingly emboldened in the wake of the anniversary celebrations of the July 2016 botched coup attempt, there are few signs of a let-up in the crackdown. On August 1st, nearly 500 people suspected of attempting to overthrow the government went on trial. Many face multiple life sentences.
“The next election is in 2019 and it will be controlled by Erdogan,” says Topbasli. “I fear he will stay in power beyond that, and that our colleagues will still be in prison by then.”