Washington Kurdish Institute
November 3, 2017
One year ago, Turkish police raided the homes of the democratically elected lawmakers from the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The police raids hit the houses of dozens of Kurdish lawmakers, including both HDP Co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. Since the breakdown of peace talks between Turkey’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July of 2015, the Turkish state, under the purview of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has instituted increasingly brutal policies against Turkey’s Kurdish community.
Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas is one of the most vocal voices for peace and justice in Turkey. After raiding Demirtas’ home in the middle of the night last year, Turkey’s government filed tens of cases against the HDP leader and sought to imprison him for up to 142 years. Among these charges, the AKP government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Demirtas of “insulting the President” and “spreading terrorist propaganda.” Erdogan’s actions are nothing new in Turkey’s history, and are merely a resurrection of suppressive tactics against democratic action by Kurdish citizens. The AKP’s tactics are similar to actions of prior Turkish governments. For example, beginning in the 1990s, Turkey responded to the rise of Kurdish political parties by shutting them down, closing a number of legal political parties including the People’s Labor Party (HEP) in 1993, the Democracy Party (DEP) in 1994, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) in 2003, and the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in 2009.
Erdogan’s recently increased hatred against the HDP and Demirtas stems from the surprising results of Turkey’s June 2015 parliamentary elections. During this election, the HDP was able, for the first time, to unite most of the Kurdish political factions and non-Kurdish progressive allies under one party (in the past they had often opted to run as independents). Up to this point, Erdogan and his party, after their initial rise to power, had controlled the majority of seats in Turkey’s parliament. However, Demirtas’ campaign as a presidential candidate in August 2014 generated great enthusiasm, and the relatively young, dynamic party official and former human rights lawyer built a nationwide base of support. During the 2015 general election campaign, Demirtas famous slogan of “we will not make you [Erdogan] President”, which spoke against allocating more executive powers to the presidency of Turkey, had a great impact on the election, and the HDP ended up winning 13 percent of the seats in Parliament, ranking them as the third largest party in Turkey. The success of Demirtas’ campaign and his strong, vocal stand against the authoritarian Erdogan regime alarmed the AKP. The outcome of the June 2015 elections hindered Erdogan’s ability to form a government unified under the AKP power structure. As a result, Erdogan renewed the Turkish government’s war against the PKK in Kurdish cities. These resumed military campaigns against Kurdish communities in Turkey led to the death of thousands of civilians and the destruction of numerous Kurdish cities and villages. Many Kurdish cities were heavily damaged and tens of thousands were displaced, caushign significant interference in Kurdish participation in the second round of elections in November 2015. Despite these limitations, the HDP was able to win 11 percent of the vote in the next election, and thus remained the third largest party in Turkey’s parliament. In response, the AKP then formed a majority government and launched arrests against Kurdish politicians and elected officials.
Demirtas’ constant calls for peace in Turkey were rejected by the AKP-led government. Today Demirtas remains in a Turkish prison alongside thousands of other HDP members, including 10 lawmakers and 80 elected Kurdish mayors and administrators.
On July 15, 2016, a coup attempt against the AKP regime was orchestrated by certain elements within the Turkish armed forces. The coup ultimately failed, partially because of a lack of widespread support within Turkish society. The HDP and Kurdish leaders rejected the coup early on, yet this did not prevent the AKP from enacting oppressive policies against the country’s Kurds in response to the coup. The failed coup attempt cleared a path for Erdogan to enact a broader oppressive, authoritarian agenda — arresting journalists and shutting down Kurdish newspapers.
Despite these actions, Demirtas did not give up on peace process, and has even continued his efforts from prison. In his speech from prison, he urges “freedom and peace” in response to the recently approved referendum which granted Erdogan more power amid criticism of the process by European Union states.
One of the charges leveled against Demirtas by the AKP government is that he “insulted the President.” This stems from a speech Demirtas gave after 33 people were killed and 104 wounded during an ISIS attack in the Kurdish town of Suruc. During this speech, Demirtas accused Erdogan of collaborating with the terrorists and turning a blind eye to ISIS activities in Turkey. Demirtas further tied Erdogan’s domestic policies against Kurds to his policies in Syria, where Erdogan cheered on ISIS’ attacks on the Kurdish area of Kobani. Erdogan said the city would fall to ISIS and that it was only a matter of time. Demirtas and other HDP officials have also accused Erdogan of supporting other of jihadi groups in Syria.
Many HDP members, including Demirtas, also stand accused of “spreading terrorist propaganda.” This refers to the alleged tie between HDP members and the PKK. Yet the HDP had praised the peace process when the AKP and the PKK agreed to a truce before the election fallout of 2015. The AKP made no such accusations of the HDP “spreading terrorist propaganda” during this time period; yet, after the breakdown of the peace talks in 2015, the AKP drastically changed its position and began accusing the HDP of such actions. In essence, the failed peace talks became pretext for the AKP-led government to arrest many HDP members, including non-Kurdish members such as Co-chair Figen Yuksekdag, an ethnic Turkish leftist originally from Adana, in the west of Turkey.
These actions (jailing Kurdish politicians, oppressing Kurdish political activities, and launching military campaigns against Kurdish communities) harken back to the days of the founder of the state of Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
In response to the pro-Kurdish movement of Sheikh Said in the early 20th century, Ataturk (“the father of the Turks”) launched a military campaign in 1925 that resulted in the destruction of 206 villages and the death of 15,200 Kurds.
Ataturk also conducted a massacre against the Kurdish Alevis in Dersim (Tunceli) during the Dersim rebellion of 1937. This massacre resulted in the killing of 13,160 killed Kurds. The omnipresent threat of death sentences against HDP politicians like Demirtas also reminds one of Turkey’s “death squads” in the 1990s that targeted Kurdish politicians.
Currently, Demirtas’ fate remains unknown, just like many other politicians who are behind Turkish bars. The United States and European countries continue only to express “concerns” over daily atrocities by Turkey’s government. The Kurdish people now stand pulled between two options: remain nonviolently committed to their elected representatives who chose peace and democracy yet were unfairly jailed for their actions or decided to join the armed struggle against tyrannical government of Turkey and risk being labeled as terrorists. Either way, the Kurds agree that Demirtas is their legitimate voice against the evils of Turkey’s government, even as the noble lawmakers remains behind Turkish bars.