Kurds in Turkey - Still fighting for freedom

By Eva Kuras

http://zmagsite.zmag.org/, January 2007


The Toronto Sun reported in June 2004, "Tens of thousands of Kurds wept and danced" when four parliamentarians were freed from prison in Turkey that month. The most well known of the parliamentarians, Leyla Zana, was the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish Parliament. At her swearing-in ceremony, she wore a headband with Kurdish colors while saying in Kurdish, "I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework." That same week, limited use of the Kurdish language in state television broadcasts was permitted by the Turkish government.

In 2002 Turkey had formally lifted the 15-year state of emergency in the country's Southeast and lessened the power of the military, bringing it under greater civilian control. The military-dominated National Security Council had traditionally held great power in Turkey so its reform constituted "a quiet revolution," according to a Financial Times editorial. Likewise the abolishing of incommunicado detention, along with the implementation of the right to legal council from the first moment of detention, were the main reasons for a decline in torture in the post-civil war years (1984-1999). The reforms that have taken place are a result of strong pressure applied by the European Union (EU) regarding Turkey's bid to become a member.

Since the end of the civil war in 1999, the situation of the Kurds in Turkey has been mixed, as some reforms were more cosmetic than substantial. Events in the past year are of particular concern, as a new wave of violence between the Turkish army and PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) coincides with Kurdish impatience with the pace of the reform process.

The European Union agreed to begin official accession negotiations with Turkey in late 2004. Many Kurdish rights activists, although generally supportive of Turkey's eventually joining the EU, still feel that this decision was made too hastily. Kerim Yeldiz (executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project) writes in his book The Kurds in Turkey: EU Accession and Human Rights that the European Commission Report of 2004 was "a decisive factor in the resolution to open accession negotiations" and had glossed over the severity of the repression of Kurds. "It cannot be stressed enough," he explains, "that the situation of the Kurds in the Southeast is not just a result of a series of unhappy coincidences, which have left them marginalized and impoverished; Turkey has pursued a deliberately anti-Kurdish agenda for decades, comprehensively subjugating them, persecuting any expression of Kurdish identity and fighting an armed conflict against them." He believes that a real solution, one not discussed in the EU report, would include both political dialogue between Turks and Kurds and a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

As the European public's fear of incorporating Turkey increases, the prospect of accession is fading. A European Commission poll published in July 2006 found that nearly one in two Europeans is against Turkey joining the EU. An article published on www.worldpress.org noted "the less spoken fear of allowing a country with a large Muslim population into the European Union." The article further noted that, "If admitted, Turkey will be the second-largest country after Germany in the European Union and, under the current arrangements, will enjoy significant political power in the Union's institutions."

The Turkish public is also becoming less supportive of Turkey joining the EU. According to Newsweek, polls showed 70 percent of Turks supported joining the EU 2 years ago, while only 43 percent did in August 2006. When the push to join the EU lessens on both sides, the incentive for Turkey to maintain and deepen its reforms disappears. In fact recent events show much cause for alarm, particularly the recent escalation in violence between the KONGRA-GEL and the Turkish Army.

As part of an attempt to shift from violent to political means of addressing Kurdish issues, the PKK changed its name to KADEK (Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan) in 2002, then KONGRAGEL (Kurdistan People's Congress) in 2003. KONGRA-GEL has been abducting police, local officials, and even civilians, propagating bomb attacks in urban centers, and has clashed repeatedly with Turkish security forces since calling off its ceasefire in 2004. According to the Kurdish Human Rights Project, at least 550 people were killed on both sides of the violence in 2005. The PKK and its successor organizations have said repeatedly since first declaring a ceasefire in 1999 (after the capture of their leader Abdullah Öcalan) that it would put down its arms if a general amnesty was declared for its fighters and greater Kurdish rights given. This was rejected by the Turkish government, which stated that the rebels should surrender themselves to the police instead. On October 2, 2006, KONGRA-GEL again declared a ceasefire. However, in response, Turkey's new military chief General Buyukanit stated he would continue to fight "until not a single armed terrorist is left."

The current situation of the Kurds in the Southeast was highlighted in March/April 2006 when thousands of Kurds rioted in several cities during and after the funeral ceremonies for 14 PKK fighters. As a result, according to the Belfast Telegraph, the government sent 5,000 troops to the Southeast backed by U.S.-made Sikorsky and Cobra helicopters. Police used live fire to put down the riots, resulting in the deaths of 14 civilians (3 of whom were children) with hundreds injured. The district mayor of Diyarbakir said at the time that the riots were "the result of the political and social problems in the region not being resolved," such as poverty, high unemployment, and the large number of displaced families living in squalor.

Anger has also been exacerbated by the government's handling of the bombing of a bookstore in Semdinli in November 2005. The bombing was only one of many that had occurred in recent months in the province, but this time local civilians chased and caught the perpetrators. Two of the perpetrators were members of the police intelligence service.

The military, along with political and judicial authorities, prevented any serious investigation into the incident. When the director of the Police Security Intelligence Bureau and the prosecutor of the case suggested possible military involvement in the bombing, they were removed from their positions.

Within this context, recent human rights gains are in danger of deterioration. As some commentators have pointed out, next year's presidential and general elections in Turkey may be influencing the president to act even harsher, as Turkey's national hardliners loudly call for more repression. There have, however, been many improvements that people living in the Southeast were quick to emphasize to a 2005 KHRP (Kurdish Human Rights Project) mission investigating the current situation.

For instance, there was only one national organization focusing on human rights in the Southeast in 2004 while there are now ten new human rights organizations based in Diyarbakir, as it has become easier to found new organizations as a result of reforms (i.e., less paperwork). Human rights organizations and lawyers are no longer subject to assassinations, torture, or warrant-less raids of their premises as was rampant during the years of the civil war. Persistent police surveillance and sometimes verbal or written death threats do still occur, though. Further the Human Rights Association faced 62 investigations at the time of KHRP's mission, 12 of which resulted in prosecutions. According to the Human Rights Association, state investigations against individuals have been markedly on the rise in recent years: from 101 in 2002 to 1,199 in 2003 to 2,642 in 2004.

Courts are now investigating allegations of torture as well, according to the 2005 U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices. However, they rarely issue convictions. When there are convictions, punishment is minimal. The report also noted that the methods of torture have become less severe and often take place outside police detention centers so that police can avoid detection. Instead of electric shocks, beating on soles of feet and genitalia, or rape, today police use methods that leave less physical signs, such as slapping, exposure to cold, stripping and blindfolding, etc. Amnesty International's Report for 2005 noted that while there were less reports of torture of those convicted for political offences, those arrested for ordinary crimes like theft or public disorder were particularly at risk of ill-treatment (perhaps because they're less likely to report it).

Many human rights defenders, still under regular police and judicial harassment, fear that this is a dangerous time in the Southeast, as some in the military feel their power waning and are striking back (hence the Semdinli bombings, for instance). In April 2006 Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathon Sugden was arrested by the Turkish police and deported from the country. Sugden's visit was to study the current situation of internally displaced people in Turkey. In a press release, KHRP described this as a "dangerous signal to all other human rights defenders and organizations in the country."

Members of political parties espousing Kurdish rights, although no longer subject to torture and assassination, continue to face harassment, are often accused of being allied with the guerrillas. Though the party is legal, Kurdish Democratic Society (DTP) meetings are regularly broken up and members are often detained and arrested by police. On July 30 police raided a DTP meeting and detained nearly 140 people, saying they were really meeting on behalf of the PKK. (The local branch leader explained to the press that the meeting took place in order to set up a city council.) Prime Minister Erdogan has said repeatedly that he would not meet with DTP leaders to work on a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue until they publicly condemned the PKK as terrorists. The 10 percent election threshold, much higher than in any other European country, effectively disfranchises the entire Kurdish Southeast from parliamentary representation. The DTP, for instance, won 45 percent of the votes there in the last elections, but only 5 percent of the national vote so the party could claim no parliamentary representation.

People continue to face trial on charges of "insulting Turkishness" or "inciting people to hatred." As of July 29, 47 writers faced prosecution in Turkey, according to the Turkish Publishers' Association, and 284 books were confiscated in the years 2000-2005, according to the KHRP. Many newspapers and radio stations still face temporary or permanent closure for saying the wrong thing and many face continual harassment. The Turkish-language, pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Yeniden Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda Again) had court proceedings issued against 304 of its 425 most recent editions. The editor of the paper pointed out to the KHRP mission that when the State Security Courts were abolished in July 2004, cases against his paper continued in the newly-named Specialized High Criminal Court.

The government is slow to address some of the deep underlying problems in the Kurdish Southeast, such as the severe problems of displacement, poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. A Human Rights Watch Report described the "near wilderness, punctuated with piles of stones where their homes once stood," which awaits those villagers who attempt to return. As of the end of last year, three million people remained internally displaced within Turkey. Even with cultural rights, there is still much work to be done. While some broadcasting in Kurdish is allowed, severe restrictions are in place concerning the frequency and content of these broadcasts. The teaching of Kurdish language has finally been allowed in private schools, although with restrictions as to frequency and content. In August 2005 all the private schools that had recently opened were forced to shut down due to financial problems.

The repression of the Kurds in Turkey goes back to the founding of the state. In his book The Kurds: A People in Search of their Homeland, Kevin McKiernan describes how after World War I Turkey was "feasted upon by the victorious Allies, carved up and humiliated," thus propelling the Young Turks' movement for national independence. The state was finally formed under Atatürk in 1923, who exploited and greatly encouraged the intense nationalist feelings of the time to build his autocracy. Under his program of "Turkification," the only official ethnicity of the new state was Turks; no other ethnicity was recognized (as is still the case today). Almost immediately repression of Turkey's Kurdish population began, as Kurdish language, culture, and organizations were repressed.

McKiernan goes on to describe how the Kurds rebelled against these changes in the 1920s and 1930s and how in response the state burned hundreds of villages to the ground and deported thousands of Kurds to western districts of Turkey. By the 1930s the military established control of Kurdish areas and the government legalized the evacuation of non-Turkish speaking peoples to Turkish-speaking areas. Kurdish villages were given Turkish names and the word "Kurdistan" was removed from history books and publications. It was in Dersim that the fiercest Kurdish resistance to these changes took place. By 1936 (the same year that the military governor of Dersim announced that the Kurdish people did not exist as a race, designating them "Mountain Turks" instead) the town was completely surrounded by the 50,000 soldiers of the Turkish army. The military occupation of Dersim continued until the 1950s.

The U.S. government first began giving military aid to Turkey in 1946 to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East during the post-WWII era. But substantial support really began after a military coup in 1980 (an article in the Economist at the time said the armed forces "acted as they had to") when the U.S. signed a military agreement with Turkey. The U.S. agreed to help modernize Turkish armed forces in exchange for the use of Turkey's military bases, which bordered Iran and the USSR. After the coup, the situation of the Kurds worsened, as the military gained greater influence and a civil state of emergency was declared in the Southeast in 1987. The civil war between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK that began in 1984 and ended in 1999, left about 37,000 dead, 3,000 Kurdish villages destroyed, and possibly 2 million Kurds displaced. The United States funded 80 percent of Turkey's arms during these years.

The Kurdish Human Rights Project in its Impact Report for 2005 described the current situation in these terms: "In Turkey, the situation has considerably improved from when we started our work there back in 1992-a time when villages were routinely being burned and evacuated by security forces and thousands of Kurds were killed or simply disappeared. It is still shocking to remember the killings of young newspaper boys, in reprisal simply for delivering Kurdish-language newspapers." They also note, however, that "institutions guaranteeing human rights, minority rights, and democracy are not yet secure" and describe their "grave concern" over the worsening situation.

As the situation deteriorates, the U.S. continues to supply arms to Turkey. A World Policy Institute Special Report published in 2005, reviewing U.S. military aid and arms transfers abroad, stated that Turkey is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt. An agreement is expected between Turkey and Lockheed Martin for the purchase of 30 advanced F-16 fighter jets, as a stop-gap solution until it completes its $10 billion program to buy nearly 100 new-generation fighters, Turkey's largest defense procurement project in history. All the more reason for us to keep a close eye on what these weapons are being used for.


Eva Kuras is a writer based in Krakow, Poland currently studying Polish language and literature.

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