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As Turkey Cracks Down, Kurdish Mayors Pack Bags for Jail

I could not see Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P., the country’s third-largest, although he lives in Diyarbakir. He, too, was jailed, along with nine other H.D.P. members of Parliament, so I arranged to see his wife, Basak, instead.

She canceled, not because she was jailed, but perhaps because she worried she would be, and she had two small children at home.

Turkey’s crackdown on Kurdish politicians, officials, news outlets, schools, municipalities, think tanks and even charities has been so thoroughgoing that it has left those who remain free expecting arrest at any moment. “My bag is packed for prison,” said Feleknas Uca, an H.D.P. member of Parliament. “Everybody has a bag in their house for prison. Now, everyone can be arrested at any moment.”

The crackdown on Kurds is part of a broader assault by the government on Turkey’s democratic freedoms after a failed coup in July, even though hard-line Islamists, followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who are rabidly anti-Kurdish and hardly democratic paragons themselves, are accused of the overthrow attempt.

This year more than 150 newspapers and other media outlets have been shuttered and about 120 journalists jailed in pretrial detention without court hearings. Some 40,000 people have been imprisoned, and more than 100,000 have been dismissed from their jobs on suspicion of sympathizing with the Gulenists.

In many cases, the only evidence against them was a messaging app, similar to WhatsApp, on their phones that supposedly served as a secret Gulenist communication system. In other cases, just having a Gulen book at home was used as evidence for dismissal or arrest.


Kurds have taken to the street in protest after a crackdown by the government, part of a broader assault on Turkey’s democratic freedoms after a failed coup in July. Credit Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Critics called it a witch hunt of medieval proportions.

In October, when Turkey’s Parliament extended for another three months the emergency powers granted to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the coup, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups issued a statement criticizing Europe and the United States for not responding more forcefully.

“The far-reaching, almost unlimited discretionary powers exercised by the Turkish authorities during the first three months of the state of emergency — now extended for a further three months — endanger the general principles of rule of law and human rights safeguards,” the statement said.

When the European Parliament in November did respond to the assault on democracy by voting against Turkey’s membership in the European Union, Ankara reacted defiantly. First, Mr. Erdogan threatened to cut off a deal limiting the flow of refugees to Europe, and then he expressed support for the restoration of the death penalty, a move that would end any talk of joining Europe, which bans capital punishment.

The crackdown on democracy has been nationwide, but on the political front it has been concentrated in the mostly Kurdish southeast, though there is no evidence, or even a government accusation, that Kurdish parties, legal or illegal, had any role in the attempted coup.

But a peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., broke down last year, and since then fighting has claimed 2,393 lives on all sides, including civilians, according to a tally by the International Crisis Group.

Mr. Erdogan’s government had been stunned in 2015 elections when the H.D.P. decimated the ruling Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., in the east especially, winning six million votes, sending 80 candidates to Parliament, and becoming overnight a nationwide political force and the third-largest party. Critics accused Mr. Erdogan of deliberately rekindling violence in Kurdish areas to stir nationalist passions and reverse his flagging fortunes.

Since the coup attempt, the government has focused on jailing officials of the H.D.P. and its local sister parties, arresting at least 45 mayors of Kurdish towns beginning in late October. New arrests are coming practically every day. This year, 2,700 local Kurdish politicians affiliated with the H.D.P. have been jailed.

An Erdogan-controlled Parliament voted to lift immunity for national legislators before the coup attempt, and Mr. Erdogan’s government arrested 10 H.D.P. deputies, including Mr. Demirtas, the party’s charismatic co-chairman, and his co-chairwoman, Figen Yuksekdag. Under H.D.P. policies, all leadership positions are shared by men and women.

Ms. Uca described the crackdown as a government coup. “They wanted to win the elections here but failed to do so, so now they are having a coup against us.”

The Erdogan government denies that it is using the coup attempt as a pretext to act against Kurds, saying that it is detaining people with ties to the P.K.K., which both Turkey and the United States have designated as a terrorist organization.


A participant in a pro-Kurdish demonstration last month. Credit Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Noting that Parliament lifted immunity for a number of lawmakers from across the political spectrum before the coup attempt, the government says that the arrests of Kurdish politicians are not necessarily related to the coup attempt.

The government maintains that the same action would have been taken against individuals with ties to other recognized terrorist organizations, like ISIS.

Kurds have borne the brunt of the crackdown, not just in politics but also in the news media and other areas. The publications and media organizations ordered closed by the government included nearly every Kurdish outlet, except for the government’s Kurdish television channel. Some Kurdish publications have begun publishing under other names.

The P.K.K., and by extension the H.D.P., which is often seen as the aboveground counterpart to the insurgents, is losing support among Kurds. Many were angry that the P.K.K. had encouraged young people to barricade urban areas in seven eastern towns and districts, a move that led to hundreds of deaths and the destruction of thousands of homes before the fighting ended last spring.

One measure of that discontent has been the lack of mass demonstrations and large-scale protests over the arrest of Mr. Demirtas. “A while ago if you considered the government doing something like that, you’d expect a huge reaction from the public,” said Vahap Coskun, a law professor at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, referring to Mr. Demirtas’s arrest and the arrests of mayors in Kurdish areas. “But now people are silent.”

Meral Danis Bestas, an H.D.P. lawmaker who has not yet been arrested, blamed the muted reaction on an aggressive police response to demonstrations, outlawed under emergency law, and the fear of arrest.

“They claim people don’t show any reaction, but actually it’s the opposite,” she said. “Currently, if we were able to hold a free rally without pepper gas and all, we would have a million people.”

One thing that all sides agree on, though, is that many young Kurds are giving up on political parties entirely. “Every family has at least one story, a kid in the mountain, or in jail, or they fled abroad,” Mr. Coskun said.

Ms. Uca said the H.D.P. was aware of that trend. “Since Demirtas and Yuksekdag were arrested, the number of youngsters going to the mountains has gone up a lot; all around us we’re seeing that. They are not leaving us space in the political arena, so they say we are leaving the political arena.”

Government officials seem to be sensitive about the situation in this eastern city, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish region. The jailed co-mayors have been replaced by an Ankara-appointed trustee, or administrator. The administrator, Cumali Atilla, did not respond to interview requests.

Even visiting here was, under the emergency law, forbidden without the permission of the Diyarbakir’s provincial governor’s office. A request for permission to do so officially languished for more than two weeks without a response.

Source: NYT > World

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