Kurdish issues in the latest HRW World Report

hrw2013reportThis year’s Human Rights Watch World Report details events around the world from 2012. The report assessed progress on human rights during the 2012 year in more than 90 countries.

Kurdistan Commentary has selected issues relating to the Kurds from this massive 665-page report and posted them below. Turkey continues to garner to bulk of the Kurdish-related news in the HRW report, as it has in years past. In the Syria section there is no mention of the Kurds at all. That chapter is focused on abuses taking place in the ongoing civil war in Syria, with no reference to Kurdish regions. The Iran chapter contains minimal information and the Kurdistan section of the Iraq chapter focuses, as in previous HRW World Reports, on freedom of expression and female genital mutilation.

Excerpts below.


Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government maintained economic growth in 2012 despite a slowdown, and a strong focus on developing a leading regional role, but failed to take convincing steps to address the country’s worsening domestic human rights record and democratic deficit. Prosecutors and courts continued to use terrorism laws to prosecute and prolong incarceration of thousands of Kurdish political activists, human rights defenders, students, journalists, and trade unionists. Free speech and media remained restricted, and there were ongoing serious violations of fair trial rights.

Cross-party parliamentary work on a new constitution to uphold the rule of law and fundamental rights continued, although it was unclear at this writing whether the government and opposition would reach a consensus on key issues such as minority rights, fundamental freedoms, and definition of citizenship.

In March, parliament passed legislation to establish a National Human Rights Institution, and in June, an ombudsman institution to examine complaints against public officials at every level. Human rights groups criticized government control of appointments to the national institution’s board and its failure to meet the test of independence from the government that United Nations guidelines recommend.

With the AKP condoning the mass incarceration of Kurdish activists, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) escalating attacks, 2012 saw a spiraling descent into violence with armed clashes resulting in hundreds of deaths of soldiers and PKK members, significantly higher than recent years. Throughout 2012, the PKK kidnapped security personnel and civilians, including local politicians, one parliamentarian, and teachers, releasing them periodically. A suspected PKK attack in Gaziantep in August left nine civilians dead, including four children. The non-resolution of the Kurdish issue remained the single greatest obstacle to progress on human rights in Turkey.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Assembly

While there is open debate in Turkey, government policies, laws and the administration of justice continue to lag behind international standards. The government has yet to carry out a comprehensive review of all existing laws that restrict freedom of expression, although a draft reform package was expected in late 2012 at this writing.

The so-called third judicial reform package came into force in July 2012. It ends short-term bans of newspapers and journals, which the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has criticized as censorship. The law suspends investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of speech-related offenses carrying a maximum sentence of five years that were committed before December 31, 2011, provided the offense is not repeated within three years. Critics fear the threat of reinstatement will continue to muzzle debate.

Thousands charged with alleged terrorism offenses remained in prison throughout their trials. Most of those in prison are Kurdish activists and officials of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) standing trial for alleged links to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK/TM), a body connected with the PKK, and in general the ongoing clampdown on the BDP and Kurdish political activism intensified in 2012 with repeated waves of mass arrests and prolonged imprisonment. The trial of 44 Journalists and media workers (31 in detention) began in Istanbul in September. They are among the many journalists, students, lawyers, trade unionists, and human rights defenders imprisoned and prosecuted for association with the KCK.

There was little progress in the main Diyarbakır KCK trial of 175 defendants. The 108 defendants who have been in custody for up to three-and-a half-years include Human Rights Association Diyarbakir branch head Muharrem Erbey, six serving local BDP mayors, several local BDP council members, and five elected BDP parliamentarians.

The July reform package also introduced and encouraged alternatives to remand imprisonment pending trial. But there were no indications that courts apply this to those already held in prolonged prison detention under terrorism charges. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice from May, the most recent data available, indicated that 8,995 of the 125,000-strong prison population were charged with terrorism offenses, and that half of the 8,995 were awaiting an initial verdict.

Combating Impunity

Great obstacles remain in securing justice for victims of abuses by police, military, and state officials.

In December 2011, a Turkish airforce aerial bombardment killed 34 Kurdish villagers, many of them young people and children, near Uludere, close to the Iraqi-Kurdistan border, as they crossed back into Turkey with smuggled goods. Concerns that there had been an official cover-up were fuelled by repeated statements by the prime minister rejecting calls by media, opposition parties, and families of victims for a full explanation of the incident, lack of a public inquiry, and a protracted criminal investigation that had not concluded at this writing.

Key International Actors

Turkey’s European Union accession negotiations remained stalled. The election of France’s President François Hollande helped to improve French-Turkish relations. In October, the European Commission in its annual progress report voiced strong criticism in most areas relating to human rights, emphasizing the importance of work on a new constitution, and stressing “the Kurdish issue remains a key challenge for Turkey’s democracy.”

The United States government remains an important influence on Turkey, sharing military intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq.

In January, a groundbreaking report by the Council of Europe (CoE) commissioner for human rights focused on “long-term, systemic problems in the administration of justice,” and its negative impact on human rights.

In its October review of Turkey, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended reforms including amending the National Human Rights Institution law, introducing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, and addressing the vagueness of the definition of terrorism in law and prolonged pretrial detention.


Death Penalty

In 2011 authorities carried out more than 600 executions, second only to China, according to Amnesty International. Crimes punishable by death include murder, rape, trafficking and possessing drugs, armed robbery, espionage, sodomy, adultery, and apostasy.

Authorities have executed at least 30 people since January 2010 on the charge of moharebeh (“enmity against God”) or “sowing corruption on earth” for their alleged ties to armed groups. As of September 2012, at least 28 Kurdish prisoners were awaiting execution on national security charges, including moharebeh.

Treatment of Minorities

The government restricted cultural and political activities among the country’s Azeri, Kurdish, Arab, and Baluch minorities.


In April, Iraq’s parliament passed a law criminalizing human trafficking, but has yet to effectively implement it. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not taken steps to implement a 2011 law banning female genital mutilation (FGM).

Freedom of Assembly

Security forces continued to respond to peaceful protests with intimidation, threats, violence, and arrests of protesters. On February 17, hundreds of security forces of the KRG surrounded a peaceful demonstration in Sulaimaniya’s Sara Square. Dozens of men in civilian clothing attacked protesters and made many arrests.

Freedom of Expression

The environment for journalists remained oppressive in 2012. The Iraqi parliament was at this writing considering a number of laws restricting the media and freedom of expression and assembly, including the draft Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration, and a draft law regulating the organization of political parties that punishes expression “violating public morals” and conveying “immoral messages.” In September, the Federal Supreme Court denied a petition by a local press freedom organization to repeal the Journalists Protection Law on the basis that it fails to offer meaningful protection to journalists and restricts access to information.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Iraq at the top of its 2012 Impunity Index, which focuses on unsolved journalist murders, and reported that there have been no convictions for murders of journalists since 2003. Iraqi authorities made no arrests for the murder of Hadi al-Mahdi, a journalist critical of the government, killed in September 2011. Another journalist, Zardasht Osman, was abducted and murdered after publishing a satirical article about KRG president Massoud Barzani in 2010. The KRG never released details of the investigation into his death.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

In June 2011, the KRG parliament passed the Family Violence Bill, which includes provisions criminalizing forced and child marriages; abuse of girls and women; and a total ban on FGM. Implementation of the law is poor, and dozens of girls and practitioners said that they had either undergone or performed FGM since the law was passed. The authorities took no measures to investigate these cases.

To see the entire 665-page report, go to the World Report 2013 page on the HRW website.

Turkey’s Kurdish Impasse: The View from Diyarbakır

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has published a new report, Turkey’s Kurdish Impasse: The View from Diyarbakır. ICG’s summary of the report and recommendations are below. To view the full report, download it here.


turkey-30nov12.ashxAs Turkey’s biggest Kurdish-majority city and province, Diyarbakır is critical to any examination of the country’s Kurdish problem and of the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The armed conflict has deteriorated in the past year and a half to its worst level in over a decade, with increased political friction and violence leading to the deaths of at least 870 people since June 2011. While as many Kurds live in western Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, as in the south east, grievances that underlie support within Kurdish communities for the PKK’s armed struggle are more clearly on display in predominantly Kurdish areas like Diyarbakır: perceived and real discrimination in the local government and economy, alienation from central authorities, anger at mass arrests of political representatives and frustration at the bans on the use of Kur­dish in education and public life. Yet Diyarbakır still offers hope for those who want to live together, if Ankara acts firmly to address these grievances and ensure equality and justice for all.

Across the political spectrum, among Kurds and Turks, rich and poor, Islamic and secular in Diyarbakır, there is a shared desire for a clear government strategy to resolve the chronic issues of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Official recognition of Kurdish identity and the right to education and justice in mother languages is a priority. The city’s Kurds want fairer political representation, decentralisation and an end to all forms of discrimination in the laws and constitution. They also demand legal reform to end mass arrests and lengthy pre-trial detentions of non-violent activists on terrorism charges.

Control of Diyarbakır is contested on many levels. The state wants to stay in charge, channelling its influence through the Ankara-appointed governor and control over budget, policing, education, health and infrastructure development. The municipality, in the hands of legal pro-PKK parties since 1999, most recently the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), is gathering more power against considerable obstacles. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) that rules nationally has ushered in a more progressive approach to police, but this has not ended confrontations and defused local hostility. Turkey as a whole, and Kurdish-speaking cities like Diyarbakır in particular, need a coherent, informed debate on decentralisation and a strategy to implement it.

The current government has done more than any previous one to permit Kurdish language use in Diyarbakır and elsewhere, but most Kurds want nothing less than a com­mit­ment to education in their mother language. The government’s initiative on optional Kurdish lessons should be fully supported as a stepping-stone in a structured plan to achieve declaration of that goal as a right.

Once Turkey’s third best off economic centre, Diyarbakır and its surrounding province have fallen to 63rd place at last measurement. Investment has long been low due to violence, flawed government policies and PKK sabotage, kidnappings, terrorist attacks and extortion. But residents show their faith in the city’s future through their investment, particularly in marble quarries and the booming real estate sector. Diyarbakır’s location at a regional historic crossroads still makes it an important hub for elements of the service sector, such as courier businesses and hospitals. Thousand-year-old monuments could make it a tourist magnet.

Fighting between the security forces and the PKK, mostly in the south east, is rising. While Diyarbakır has mostly been spared the worst of the recent violence, the civilian population and local politics are nonetheless increasingly stressed and polarised by events. The AKP is losing its appeal, and the BDP, while uncontested as the strongest political force in the city, has yet to prove its political maturity and ability to be more than a front for an increasingly violent PKK. The moderately Islamic Gülen movement is trying to offer another way, and as a negotiated settlement seems less likely, Kurdish Islamic groups are boosting their already substantial influence.

Yet, voices from Diyarbakır insist that common ground exists, as it does throughout the rest of Turkey. Crisis Group, in two previous reports in 2011 and 2012, recommended that the government announce a clear strategy to resolve the conflict, focusing in the first instance on justice and equal rights for Kurds. It suggested that the government work pro-actively with Kurdish representatives on four lines of reform: mother-language rights for Turkey’s Kurds; reducing the threshold for election to the national parliament to 5 per cent from 10 per cent; a new decentralisation strategy; and stripping all discrimination from the constitution and laws. Once these steps have been taken, it could then move to detailed talks on disarmament and demobilisation with the PKK. In short, both sides need to exercise true leadership, by eschewing violence, committing to dialogue and achieving the Kurds’ legitimate aspirations through Turkey’s existing legal structures, especially in the parliamentary commission working on a new constitution.

This companion report additionally offers recommendations specifically for urgent action by the government and legal leadership of the Kurdish movement in Diyarbakır to strengthen Kurds’ trust in the state by working to resolve pressing local problems and to ensure the long-term development of the city and province.


To the Turkish Government and Diyarbakır community leaders, including the Kurdish movement’s legal leadership:

To establish mutual trust between Turks and Kurds

1.  The Turkish government should pass and implement legal reforms to allow the use of mother languages in trials, shorten pre-trial detentions and ensure that Kurdish and other suspects are taken into custody in a humane manner. It should encourage local police to continue improving engagement with the Diyarbakır community and end use of excessive force, even in response to unauthorised public meetings and demonstrations.

2.  Community and Kurdish movement leaders should comply with procedures on public meetings and dem­on­stra­tions; renounce all PKK violence; and continue civil society efforts, such as the recently established “Dialogue and Contact Group”.

To guarantee use of mother languages in education and public life

3.  The Turkish government should complete the implementation of optional Kurdish classes in the 2012-2013 academic year transparently; define a timeline for full education in mother languages wherever there is sufficient demand; continue to prepare teachers and curriculums for this transition; allow local elected officials to change relevant laws and regulations so as to restore or give Kurdish names to local places; and relax the ban on the use of Kurdish in public services.

4.  Community and Kurdish movement leaders should acknowledge the government’s positive steps in these areas, and stop boycotts of optional Kurdish classes.

To ensure a fair debate and eventual consensus on decentralisation

5.  The Turkish government should lead a debate in Diyarbakır, as well as nationwide, about municipal governance and decentralisation.

6.  Local government leaders should cooperate and meet with central government representatives who visit the province and clearly express their commitment to achieving Kurds’ democratic demands legally.

To assist Diyarbakır’s economic, social and cultural development

7.  The Turkish government should ensure that Diyarbakır receives a fair share of public funds, particularly for education, international airport facilities, railway connections and industrial zones, equivalent to that of comparable cities elsewhere in Turkey; and pro-actively promote domestic tourism to this and other historic cities in the south east.

8.  Community leaders should reach out to Turkish mainstream opinion to help overcome prejudices about the Kurdish-speaking south east through the exchange of business delegations, school trips and professional conferences.

Istanbul/Diyarbakır/Brussels, 30 November 2012

And the 2012 Der Steiger award goes to…

Protesters in Bochum, 17 March 2012

Well, not Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan. Close to 30,000 protesters flooded the streets of Bochum yesterday in a pre-planned rally to criticise the decision to honour the Turkish Prime Minister with this year’s Der Steiger award. Protesters were local Alevi, Kurdish and Armenians, who oppose the ruling AK Party’s policies in Turkey. Der Steiger is awarded in various categories and Erdoğan was to have received it for humanity and tolerance.

One leading German conservative had criticised the decision to award a prize for tolerance to Erdoğan, citing what he called a lack of press freedom and the ‘suppressing’ of religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey. Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition government, said it would be more appropriate to award Erdoğan a prize for intolerance.

One news source said organisers of the German prize decided against honouring Erdoğan in light of the protests and criticism. However, the official Der Steiger website only says that Erdoğan cancelled the trip to Germany due to the deaths of Turkish soldiers in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Award organisers, according to the German news agency DPA, said they changed their mind because Erdoğan was not travelling to the award ceremony in Germany.

Tilman Zülch, President of the Society for Threatened Peoples International sent an open letter several days ago to the Mayor of Bochum in which he urged Mayor Scholz to reconsider this decision. He wrote:

To accord Erdoğan this honor although he is responsible for massive human rights violations in Turkey is not only a slap in the face for the victims of arbitrary imprisonment and torture in Turkey, it also tarnishes the reputation of this award.

There has been a steady wave of arrests in Turkey since 2009, primarily targeting Kurdish journalists, politicians, human rights activists and opposition members. There are currently 103 journalists, 13 members and leaders of the Turkish human rights organization IHD, 52 leaders of the KESK trade union, and thousands of members of the democratic Kurdish party, BDP, awaiting trial. In spite of the complete lack of evidence, they are accused either of belonging to the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) or of denigrating the Turkish people.

The anti-terror law provides the Turkish government with a foundation for massive restrictions on freedom of the press. Pro-Kurdish statements made in public, including those made at peaceful demonstrations organized by the opposition party, are frequently the entire basis for arrests.

In recent days it has also come to light that from 2006 to 2010, more than 4000 Kurdish youths were sentenced. These twelve- to seventeen-year-olds were accused of expressing pro-Kurdish sentiments or throwing stones at a demonstration. The children who have been released describe torture and abuses. Thousands of children and youths, however, are still being held as “terrorists” in Turkish prisons. They are often without protection of any kind, at the mercy of judicial authorities and adult fellow prisoners. The authorities have been aware of this situation since 2011, but have done nothing.

In spite of Erdoğan’s announced intention to continue emphatically advocating for equal rights and for the protection of everyone living in Turkey regardless of ethnicity, Muslim and Yazidi Kurds as well as Christian Assyro-Aramaeans still suffer direct and indirect discrimination, persecution and violence.

The Steiger Award should be an acknowledgment of extraordinary service and dedication. It sends a signal, and confers recognition. A government leader who uses an anti-terror law to legitimize grave human rights abuses should not be encouraged to continue running roughshod over the basic rights of citizens in the country he governs.

#TwitterKurds takes the civil disobedience campaign online

A campaign on Twitter is underway to raise awareness of the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and to bring the situation to the attention of the international media.

The campaign, dubbed #TwitterKurds, has been organised by UK-based blogger and human-rights activist, Hevallo, who says that journalists in the UK tend to shy away from reporting on the Kurds saying ‘there is no real link to the UK and there are other conflicts that are more newsworthy.’

While other conflicts across the globe capture the world’s attention, the Kurds’ struggle for ethnic and linguistic equality in Turkey goes largely unnoticed in the mainstream press. Hevallo says that one of the main issues hindering the ability of global media to report on this particular conflict fairly and accurately is that ‘Turkish propaganda and psychological misinformation cloud the issue and many people still regard the Kurds’ legitimate struggle for basic rights in Turkey as “terrorism.”’

The Kurd as ‘terrorist’ is an all too common theme in the Turkish press and often in European press as well. Little effort is made to reach beyond the Turkish propaganda machine and clichés to reveal the truth.

The #TwitterKurds campaign will attempt to do just that by reaching out to journalists, politicians, bloggers and social media activists, policymakers, news agencies and human rights organisations with the message: ‘Speak Out About the Repression of the Kurds in Turkey’ and to give the Kurdish people a voice as they struggle daily on the streets of Turkey against a repressive regime.

Kurdish politician and leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, said acts of civil disobedience planned by the BDP and the DTK (Democratic Society Congress) will be democratic and peaceful. ‘Don’t send the security forces against us; if you are going to send someone, send government representatives, send the interior minister. Security forces aren’t our counterpart to talk to; our counterparts are the politicians,’ he said.

However, security forces have been sent against them. The civil disobedience campaign has been met with batons, tear gas and high-pressure water cannons. In fact, just since the beginning of this year Turkish police have already used up their entire annual stock of tear gas in repressing demonstrations. In the same amount of time thousands of Kurdish protesters have been arrested.

Given the difficulties of getting this information to the attention of the global press, #TwitterKurds plans three days of mass Tweeting to get the message out. Turkey’s general election is slated for 12 June, just three weeks away. Over the next three Fridays (27 May, 03 and 10 June) in the run up to the elections, while Kurds are boycotting the official Turkish Imams and praying outside of the mosques instead, Kurds and friends of Kurds will be Tweeting en masse to speak out with one voice against the suppression of the Kurds in Turkey.

This collective suppression of the Kurdish population is due, in part, to ‘the silence in the international community,’ says Hevallo. By Tweeting, he says, ‘we are able to reach a wider audience than say, Facebook. If we are disciplined and smart about this, a well-constructed Tweet with a link to a well-written article, photograph or video can convey our message and give the Kurdish side’s point of view. Our Tweets will expose the truth about the Kurdish question in Turkey.’

Politicians are making the rounds in Kurdish areas of SE Turkey trying to garner votes. Yesterday Turkish PM Erdoğan was on the campaign trail in the city of Şirnex (Şırnak in Turkish). Surrounded by rooftop snipers and army helicopters he announced to the crowd of Kurds: ‘My brothers, we will build new hospitals, airports, schools and health clinics. For us [the party in power], there is no separation between a Turk and a Kurd. Let us serve you.’

Kurds have four demands and hospitals, airports, schools and health clinics are not among them, though this is a step up from the washing machines and dishwashers offered in the 2009 election.

Kurds are engaging in a massive campaign of civil disobedience for the right to education in Kurdish, the immediate release of imprisoned Kurdish politicians, an end to Turkey’s military operations against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the abolishment of Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold law for parliamentary representation.

‘Until our demands are heard by the government and until concrete steps are taken, we will remain on the fields and on the squares,’ said Demirtaş.

#TwitterKurds says that until Kurdish voices are heard by the international media and until people start paying attention, the campaign will remain on the Twitter timelines.

Join the campaign at #TwitterKurds!

Not all convictions are created equal

YSK (Election Board) office

Just as it looked as though the momentum was building for Kurdish politicians, the Turkish government has once again stepped in to block their efforts to become part of the political landscape. Yesterday, Turkey’s senior election board (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu, YSK) disqualified 12 independent candidates from running for parliament in the upcoming June election on the grounds that they are legally unfit to be candidates. Most of them were Kurds or supported by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

YSK’s action could effectively block the prospects for any additional Kurdish representatives to be elected when the parliamentary voting is held in mid-June. Turkey’s Kurdish minority has only 20 representatives in parliament and wants to cross the 10% threshold to be represented as a party in the new parliament. The party had planned to back 61 candidates in 39 provinces who wanted to run as independents under the ‘Labour, Democracy and Freedom’ block in order to overcome that threshold for political parties.

Some of the Kurdish politicians declared ineligible had previously been approved by YSK when they ran for office in the 2007 election. YSK attributed the discrepancy to its lack of complete information about them four years ago, including the unlikely excuse that they were unaware that some had criminal records. The YSK’s action is widely viewed among Kurds as an underhanded tactic to disenfranchise them.

‘This is a political decision that prevents participation of Kurds in democratic politics,’ said Ahmet Türk, a banned Kurdish politician and former member of the DTP, a Kurdish political party closed down by the Constitutional Court in 2009. ‘Despite all our democratic efforts, politics has been blocked for Kurds.’

Now the BDP is pondering whether to withdraw from the June elections in response to the YSK’s decision to bar some of its candidates. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the BDP described the upcoming poll as undemocratic and called on the Parliament to postpone the 12 June vote.

Many of independent candidates were blocked due to past convictions. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan too has a past conviction and has spent time in prison. He served four months in 1998 for reading a poem that was deemed anti-Kemalist. But not all convictions are created equal. When a Kurd reads a poem, or sings, or dances, or marches, the charges are almost always tied to terrorism. And it is those candidates with terrorism-related convictions who were barred.

Leyla Zana (left)

One of those barred candidates is Leyla Zana. Twenty years ago Zana used Kurdish in parliament while taking the oath of office. She was later stripped of her parliamentary immunity and sent to prison on terrorism charges, where she remained behind bars for ten years (1994-2004). While in prison, she was awarded the European Parliament’s human rights prize for her efforts to advance Kurdish minority rights. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that Turkey had violated Zana’s right to freedom of expression and ordered the government to pay her compensation. Zana would have run as a candidate from Diyarbakır.

The other BDP-supported candidates who were barred from running are BDP party co-chair Gültan Kışanak who would have run from Siirt, Hatip Dicle, a current KCK suspect (Diyarbakır), Bianet Project Coordinator and journalist Ertuğrul Kürkçü (Mersin), Isa Gürbüz (Elazığ), Salih Yıldız (Hakkari), Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP) leader Şerafettin Elçi (Diyarbakır) and Istanbul DTP deputy Sebahat Tuncel (Istanbul).

Aysel Tuğluk, former DTP Member of Parliament and current candidate, warned the situation could possibly lead to ‘new clashes’ in the country’s southeast. Turkish officials frequently allege that pro-Kurdish political parties act as the political wing for PKK rebels. Tuğluk was sentenced in 2009 for violating anti-terrorism laws when she referred to PKK fighters as ‘heroes to some’ but was not barred this round by the YSK.

Selahattin Demirtaş called the election board’s decision ‘a political operation; a political purge’ that would benefit the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections. ‘The state has decided to hand over [Turkey's south-eastern] region to the AKP,’ Demirtaş told broadcaster CNNTürk.

Demirtaş was clear in underlining that ‘we are in the presence of a clear conspiracy against our block. The candidates YSK has banned were absolutely entitled to run as candidates. We have legal papers in our hands. There is no lawful reason to ban them. This is why we have to look at this decision as the political planned will to prevent our block to contest the elections.’ Commenting on the excluded candidates, Demirtaş underlined that ‘Sebahat Tuncel and Gültan Kışanak are deputies and at the last elections the YSK did not find any problem in them contesting the elections.’ He went so far as to say that this ‘is nothing short of a declaration of war.’

Demonstrations in Diyarbakır

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against YSK’s decision to bar these candidates. They marched to the ruling AKP office in Diyarbakır, chanting slogans against PM Erdoğan, who is seen as one of the plotters against Kurdish politicians. Demonstrations were also held in Batman, Mersin and Van.

The BDP had announced on Sunday its independent nominees, including six candidates who are suspects in the ongoing trial of the illegal Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, which resumes today. One of those candidates, Hatip Dicle, was banned by the YSK. The other five KCK suspects include Faysal Sarı from Şırnak; Ibrahim Ayhan from Şanlıurfa; Kemal Aktaş from Van; Selma Irmak from Şırnak and Gülseren Yıldırım from Mardin.

Emine Ayna, Nursel Aydoğan, and journalist Altan Tan will be independent candidates from Diyarbakır. Former deputies of the now-closed Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Ahmet Türk and Aysel Tuğluk will run from Mardin.

In Istanbul the BDP is running director and writer Sırrı Süreyya Önder and former BDP Istanbul provincial chairman Mustafa Avcı. Labour Party (EMEP) leader Levent Tüzel is another independent deputy supported by the BDP in Istanbul. Tüzel was an independent candidate from Izmir in the 2007 parliamentary elections but was not elected.

Hakkari and Şırnak are also among the provinces where the BDP seeks to have more than one deputy. These two provinces, which lent strong support to the BDP in its call for a boycott of the 12 September referendum with more than 90 percent of the voters refusing to cast a vote, are regarded as a ‘liberated zone’ by the BDP. The aim of the BDP in Hakkari is to have all of three independent candidates elected. BDP party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş is one of the candidates who will run from Hakkari. Another BDP-sponsored candidate from Hakkari is Esat Canan, an ethnic Kurd and former CHP deputy for Hakkari. The third Hakkari candidate is Kurdish writer and journalist Adil Kurt.

As for the BDP’s Şırnak deputy candidates, current Şırnak deputy Hasip Kaplan and former DTP Deputy Chairman Selma Irmak will run as independent deputies in the elections from there. Irmak, as mentioned above, is also currently under arrest as part of the KCK investigation.

Erol Dora, a lawyer of Assyrian origin, will run from Mardin, which has the largest Assyrian population in Turkey. In Dersim (Tunceli), which is predominantly Alevi, Alevi folk music singer Ferhat Tunç will run.

Other candidates on the list include Bengi Yıldız, Ayla Akat, Sırrı Sakık, Akın Birdal and Hasip Kaplan. Yüksel Avşar, a relative of the artist Hülya Avşar, will run for Ardahan.

Speaking at a meeting in Diyarbakır where the candidates were announced, Demirtaş said the candidates were elected from among 400 nominees and that the party had held primary elections in 11 provinces. He added that 13 of the party’s 61 candidates are women and 36 of them are university graduates.

The BDP has defined its deputy candidate list as a ‘picture of Turkey’ and Demirtaş said that ‘every single colleague nominated for the elections should be embraced by our people [Kurds] in every region. They should work for the elections hand-in-hand without causing controversy.’

Poll results: Friends, maybe. Brothers, definitely not.

On 09 February 2011 the Turkish Sunday’s Zaman newspaper published the results of a poll, which concluded that there was ‘no strong ethnic polarisation in Turkey.’ The results were gleaned from a survey aimed at learning about the perceptions of respondents regarding the relations between Turks and Kurds in Turkey.

The survey was carried out by Associate Professor Zeynep Karahan Uslu (University of Economics and Technology), and Associate Professor Can Bilgili (Yeditepe University). All of the 829 respondents to the survey were readers of either the Zaman, Cumhuriyet or Hürriyet dailies and all lived in Ankara.

Hürriyet is a strongly nationalistic, pro-army, pro-state, and pro-secular paper. Hürriyet was established in 1948 by the Simavi family and is presently owned by the Doğan Media Group. It is one of the country’s top circulation newspapers.

Cumhuriyet is leftist, strongly nationalistic, and secularist, critical of both the Fethullah Gülen sect and the AKP government. It has also become deeply critical of the army leadership’s unwillingness to take forceful action against the Islamists, even though it has long been considered a strongly pro-army paper. The Nadi family started publishing Cumhuriyet in 1924.

Zaman was founded in 1986 as the first newspaper established by the Fethullah Gülen Group. It is supportive of the AKP government while being critical of the MHP and CHP. Today’s Zaman, which is published by the Zaman newspaper for foreign readers, is supportive of the AKP government and of moderate Islam as propounded by Fethullah Gülen. Today’s Zaman was launched in early 2007 as an adjunct to Zaman to secure a niche in the English-language media.

The survey asked a series of leading, misguided questions to Turkish readers to reach the conclusion that basically there is no real division amongst Turks and Kurds in Turkey.

Kurdistan Commentary decided to use the same questions and poll its readers to see if it could replicate the results reported by Uslu and Bilgili.

The poll asked respondents to select whether or not they agreed with the statement using the following scale:

0. No answer, 1. Strongly disagree, 2. Disagree, 3. Neither agree not disagree, 4. Agree, 5. Strongly agree.

Here are the statements used in our survey. In statement number five we changed Kurds to Turks. Statement number six was not part of the Uslu/Bilgili survey. Otherwise the statements are the same as they appeared in the Uslu/Bilgili survey.

1. Kurds and Turks have been brothers for a thousand years.
2. Kurds, but for a small number of members of terrorist organisations, are loyal to Turkey.
3. Steps should be taken in the field of democracy and human rights as well as producing economic and social projects for the settlement of the Kurdish question.
4. Kurds are an inseparable part of Turkey.
5. I support the idea of being close friends with Turks.
6. I am: Kurdish-Turkish-Both-Neither

We did not get the same response rate as the original survey, of course. We had about 60 responses for each question. The questions were not tied together, and some respondents did not answer all the questions. Responses of ‘no answer’ were not counted.

The results show a clear difference in what our readers think and those of the survey carried out amongst the readers of Zaman, Cumhuriyet or Hürriyet. Our sample may not be statistically significant, but if offers a different perspective.

Click to enlarge. KC=Kurdistan Commentary, ZN=Zaman, HU=Hürriyet, CM=Cumhuriyet

For the first question asking if Turks and Kurds are brothers, the three newspapers had results between ‘neither agree or disagree’ and ‘agree’. Kurdistan Commentary readers had an average of 1.92, which indicates disagreement. In fact, 50% of those who responded chose ‘strongly disagree.’

In questions 2 (Kurds loyal to Turkey) and 4 (Kurds inseparable part of Turkey) the same pattern emerges with readers of the three Turkish newspapers polling between ambivalence and weak agreement, while Kurdistan Commentary readers show clear disagreement. In Question 2, 58% of Kurdistan Commentary respondents chose ‘strongly disagree’ and 74% chose ‘strongly disagree’ for Question 4.

In Question 5, we changed one word to ask our readers whether they support the idea of being friends with Turks, whereas the original question (written for Turks) asked if they supported the idea of being friends with Kurds. It is in this question that the answers are most evenly distributed (strong disagree=17, disagree=10, neither agree nor disagree=11, agree=14, strongly agree=7). So friends, maybe. Brothers, definitely not.

Question 3 was the only statement where there was some agreement amongst their respondents and ours. This statement said: ‘Steps should be taken in the field of democracy and human rights as well as producing economic and social projects for the settlement of the Kurdish question.’ Responses from the three Turkish newspapers for this question were higher than for the other questions (3.89, 4.07, 4.23), showing more than the lukewarm agreement of the other statements in their survey.

Kurdistan Commentary readers, however, polled at an average of 4.59, showing far stronger agreement with this statement. In fact, 48 of 61 (just under 79%) selected ‘strongly agree’ for this statement.

While there is a minor difference in numbers, the general feeling seems to be that most agree that more emphasis needs to be placed on democracy and human rights.

Of the 65 who answered question number six, 54 self identified as Kurdish (83%), 3 as Turkish, 1 as both, and 7 as neither.

Overall, there is a clear divergence in the responses between the two groups: theirs and ours. Kurdistan Commentary does not think that Uslu and Bilgili’s survey adequately captured the national mood in regards to relations between Turks and Kurds. It is presumptuous of them to conclude that ethnic polarisation does not exist based solely on these findings.


Resisting Turkification policies, then and now

‘O people of the fatherland! You are aware of the injustice and oppression of the Turks. With a small number of themselves they have ruled over you and enslaved you… They have passed regulations to destroy your noble language.’

Crowd in Diyarbakır protesting KCK trial

Today Turkish police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse dozens of young Kurds at a demonstration in central Istanbul. The unrest erupted after about 2,000 people marched down Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main pedestrian area, to denounce the trial in Diyarbakır of some 150 Kurdish leaders on charges of links to Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban branch of the PKK.

Last Thursday in Diyarbakır some 8,000 people gathered in front of the Diyarbakır Station Square during the Thursday hearing. The meeting then turned into a protest march joined by more than 10,000 people, including BDP deputies and members of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). Kurdish politician and DTK co-chair Ahmet Türk addressed the crowd in Kurdish and criticised the policies of the ruling AKP and the KCK trial. He emphasised the demand for a democratic autonomy.

The demonstrators remained in front of the courthouse after the members of parliament had returned to the courtroom. After the protesters lit fireworks, the police intervened with tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

There was another point in history when a different group fought against the same policies of linguistic repression and forced Turkification, which mirrors what is happening today. The similarities between what happened 100 years ago in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and now are remarkable.

The adoption of Arabic as an official language in the Ottoman Empire was one of the main demands by the Arab elite during the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1880 and 1881 a series of placards appeared in Damascus, Beirut, and other cities announcing these linguistic demands. The third placard, dated 14 January 1881, included this:

O people of the fatherland! You are aware of the injustice and oppression of the Turks. With a small number of themselves they have ruled over you and enslaved you… They have passed regulations to destroy your noble language.

Autonomy was the first demand in this placard. Recognition of Arabic as an official language was the second.

Secondly, recognition of the Arabic language as official in the country [Syria] and of the right of those who speak it to complete freedom in publishing their thoughts, books and newspapers, in accordance with the demands of humanity, progress and civilisation.

This is all too familiar in the current call for Kurdish linguistic and cultural freedoms.

With the Young Turks Revolution in 1908 and their rise to power in 1909 a rigorous policy of Turkification was implemented in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the empire. This was led by the more extreme elements of the movement who sought to save the Empire by forced assimilation into Turkish language and culture of non-Turkish subjects. This policy was mainly directed at the Arabic-speaking populations of Syria and Lebanon as they were seen as the biggest threat to the Empire. This was, in effect, a realisation of some of the dominant Turkist themes of the Hamidian period of 1876-1908.

Ankara today, like its Ottoman predecessors, is trying to ‘save the Empire’ by enforcing compliance of its anachronistic language laws. The state still sees the use of any other language apart from Turkish as a threat to the territorial integrity of the state.

Kurdish youth clash with police (Istanbul, 16 January 2011)

The intended result then of the forced assimilation policy was to counter nationalist tendencies amongst non-Turkish populations and bring them into the Turkish fold. The actual result was the alienation of the Arabs and a transformation of the Arab nationalist movement into a political one.

The parallels to the current relationship between the Turks and the Kurds are striking. The policies of assimilation have failed and have only served to reinvigorate Kurdish linguistic pride and, with it, Kurdish national identity.

The Young Turks forced the reinstatement of the 1876 Constitution, set aside some 30 years prior by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. With that, Turkish was imposed as the language of instruction in all state schools. Arabic was outlawed both inside and outside the classroom at all times. Students caught using Arabic were publicly shamed and subjected to corporal punishment. Arabic was outlawed in the courts and in all correspondence with the government administration. All members of Parliament were required to speak Turkish.

Also around that time, articles began to appear in the Turkish press attacking the Arabic language. The following quote appeared in an editorial in Tanin, an Istanbul daily newspaper of the time:

The Arabs do not stop prattling in their language and they are total ignoramuses in Turkish, as if they were not under Turkish rule. The government is obligated in such a case to force them to forget their language and to learn the language of the nation that is ruling them.

Language is a key marker of identity. It is the essence of identity. The KCK trial in Diyarbakır is no longer about whether these 152 defendants are ‘members of an illegal organisation.’ It is about the survival of the Kurdish language, culture, and identity. The mindset in Ankara, however, harkens back to the days of the Young Turks Revolution and the idea that it is a government obligation to force non-Turkish speakers ‘to learn the language of the nation that is ruling them.’ This myopic, ultra-nationalist approach cannot accept the existence of another nation or another language.

So how did the Arabs at the time resist the intense push for Turkification?

First and foremost was the call to make Arabic, alongside Turkish, an official language of the state in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Empire. The Decentralisation Party, established in 1912 by Ottoman Arabs, stated in Article 14 of its platform: ‘Every province will have two official languages, Turkish and the local language.’ Other parties and societies espoused similar demands.

In 1913 Arab elites gathered at the Paris Congress where declarations were drawn up to press their demands on the government in Istanbul. Paragraph 5 of the draft resolution stated that the ‘Arabic language must be recognised in the Ottoman Parliament and the Parliament must decide that it will be an official language in the Arab [provinces].’

Ahmet Riza, one of the early leaders of the Young Turks

The Young Turks, however, met in January 1914 and only pushed their Turkification agenda further by deciding to eliminate the ‘nationalist societies’, which, in their eyes, were becoming much too assertive.

The second method of resistance was through active promotion of Arab culture and the Arabic language. Organisations, societies, and cultural clubs were formed to promote Arabic and its usage. One of the better-known groups was the Society of Arab Revival (est. in Istanbul in 1906), which had to change its name to the Society of Syrian Revival due to escalating Turkification in the government. The word ‘Arab’ was not allowed.

The aim of the Syrian Revival group was to spread Arab culture and language. It did this by organising meetings to study language, literature and history. Turkish borrowings in Arabic were banned during these sessions.

The third method was the use of poetry to rebut the attacks against Arabs and Arabic. One poem by Fuad al-Khatib rejected Turkish claims that the Arabs’ attempts to modernise their culture through language were a form of dissension or civil strife in the Empire.

Several months ago, TZPKurdî (Tevgera Ziman û Perwerdahiya Kurdî) began a campaign called ‘Read, Speak, Write in Kurdish Everywhere’, launched against the prohibition of the Kurdish language in certain spheres in Turkey.

TZPKurdî suggests three measures to resist the repression of Kurdish in Turkey: 1) to promote the Kurdish language in education, 2) to speak the language in private as well as in public venues and 3) to speak it at all political events. Currently, the use of Kurdish in the political arena is forbidden according to the Law on Political Parties.

In the early 20th century the nascent popularity of journalism in the region and the introduction of modern printing presses pushed the Arab language agenda and supported it. One hundred years later, in addition to the street protests in Diyarbakır, Istanbul, and elsewhere, it is online citizen journalism, Twitter, facebook and YouTube supporting the linguistic revolution.

The KCK trial resumes on Tuesday and the struggle for recognition of Kurdish linguistic rights will continue…online and in the streets. Ez li vir im.


Suleiman, Yasir (2003). The Arabic Language and National Identity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Müge Göçek, Fatma (2002). Social constructions of nationalism in the Middle East. State University of New York Press.

Kurdish protesters clash with Turkish police in Istanbul. Hürriyet, 16 January 2011.

Who’s as mad as hell? Anyone? Kurdistan Commentary, 16 November 2010.

KCK trials and the Kurds. Kurdish Info, 14 January 2011.

Gül’s patronising ‘embrace’

Signs in Diyarbakir welcoming President Gül

On Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s flight to the city of Diyarbakır, in response to a question as to whether he would say anything in Kurdish during his official visit to the city, Gül said, ‘How can I say anything in Kurdish? I don’t speak Kurdish.’

Gül was met at the airport by Mayor Osman Baydemir and later paid a visit to the mayor’s office, where Baydemir presented the president with a Kurdish-Turkish dictionary. Said Gül upon receiving the gift: ‘I will gladly accept this dictionary. Certainly, this is a sociological reality of this area.’ (Bu da tabi buranın bir sosyolojik gerçeğidir).

This is a sociological reality of this area? What a strange thing to say. What did he even mean by that? Imagine if he had said something like: ‘Mr Mayor, when I was on the plane coming to Diyarbakır I said I don’t speak Kurdish. Thank you for the gift of this dictionary. On my way back to Ankara I will use it to learn a few words of Kurdish.’ That would have made a much better impression.

But instead the president went on to say, ‘Turkish is and will be the official language of the Republic of Turkey. Also, Turkish is the language of the state and public institutions. It is our common language. On the other hand, it is a fact that there are citizens speaking different languages among Turkish people. There are people speaking Kurdish, Arabic and the other languages. They all belong to us.’

Baydemir presents Gül with a Kurdish-Turkish dictionary

Yet Hürriyet’s headline read: President embraces use of Kurdish. This is an embrace of Kurdish? It’s more like: President dismisses importance of Kurdish. In this patronising ‘embrace’ of the Kurdish language he said, in effect, that millions of Kurdish speakers deserve no more respect or attention than anyone else who speaks a different language.

Gül was parroting the outcome of the National Security Council’s (MGK) meeting the day before. The MGK responded to Kurdish demands bluntly on Wednesday, saying the country was indivisible and that no attempt at challenging the official Turkish language would be accepted. The statement was released after a 5-hour meeting headed by Gül at the presidential palace. The MGK develops national security policy and has been in place since the military coup of 1960.

‘We cannot allow any attempt to deny that the official language of the Turkish Republic, which symbolises common grounds such as one flag, one nation and one land is Turkish,’ said the website of the presidential palace, citing the MGK’s statement.

During a speech at a meeting at the municipality building, Baydemir said that peace can only be reached through dialogue and consensus. He added that the ‘lack of tolerance toward demands and suggestions by Kurdish politicians on the mother-tongue and democratic autonomy is a source of concern.’

BDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş issued a strong reaction to the MGK communiqué. ‘I call on the MGK members: Kurds will not accept the division of this country even though you attempt to do so. I call on the president: How will you protect the cultures you call [Turkey’s] richness? As the head of the nation you have to put [forth] the formula.’

The language debate will certainly be one of the major issues and sources of contention for 2011. Embrace the New Year. Sersala we pîroz be!


Turkey rejects use of Kurdish in official business. Today’s Zaman, 30 December 2010.

President embraces use of Kurdish, reaffirms Turkish as official language. Hürriyet Daily News, 30 December 2010.

Abdullah Gul: Zimanê resmî tirkî ye. AKNews, 30 December 2010.

Turkish security board reaffirms unity amid autonomy debate. Hürriyet Daily News, 30 December 2010.

Healthcare in Kurdish. What’s the problem?

Turkish Minister of Health Recep Akdağ says there's no need for Kurdish

What is the relationship between a healthy society and receiving healthcare in your mother tongue? I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know the answer. But I’m going to wager a bet that the better the communication between doctor and patient, the better the treatment, which will lead to a healthier society. Does that sound reasonable?

That was the thinking too of the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians. They asked for the use of Kurdish in the region’s healthcare services so that better service could be provided. Turkish Minister of Health Recep Akdağ rejected the proposal, claiming that there was ‘no need for it.’

Akdağ stated that the ‘number of people not knowing Turkish is very few, only some elders and women. But, there is always someone around to speak Kurdish; hence it is not a problem.’ This is an ongoing strategy employed by the Turkish state to deprive Kurds of the right to access to healthcare.

If communication were not a problem, as Akdağ claims, then the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians probably would not have produced a book of basic Kurdish phrases, aimed at helping doctors working in the region to communicate more effectively with their Kurdish-speaking patients and to make more accurate diagnoses.

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı (right) working hard to ensure Kurdish makes its way into the healthcare system.

Last year when the book was completed, one thousand copies were published. Two doctors and a linguist spent around six months working on the booklet.

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı, who was president of the Diyarbakır Chamber of Physicians when the guide was written, said that it offered basic grammar and pronunciation rules, as well as basic vocabulary. The most important part of the guide is a Kurdish translation of a list of questions that doctors ask patients during the examination.

Early feedback by doctors was that they would like possible answers by patients to be included. Mızraklı pointed out that women and children of the region and doctors who are sent to the area for an obligatory period face most communication problems, and that this affects the quality of a diagnosis.

‘Asking the right questions is very important. A good diagnosis is 90 percent dependent on the questions asked during examination. A common language will also reduce the time spent on each examination.’

Dr. Selçuk Mızralı is a longtime and ardent advocate of Kurdish language rights. As an organiser of the First Mesopotamian Health Days congress (22-24 October 2009) in Diyarbakir he ensured that Kurdish, together with English and Turkish, was for the first time recognised as a medical congress language. Additionally all the presentations made in English and Turkish were simultaneously translated into Kurdish.

Earlier this month at a health conference organised by the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Aysel Tuğluk, DTK co-chair, said that the conference focused ‘not only physical health care and access to health care but also recovering the trauma and dealing with social and cultural problems.’

She criticised the AKP saying that Turkey is supposed to be a social state but the green card (health insurance card for low-income population) is ‘abused by the government and launched like a gift from AKP in order to gain votes.’ She also said that health care is a fundamental right and should not be abused for the sake of politics, adding that local offices are engaged in illegal intimidation of the Kurdish population by cancelling their green cards if they become politically active.

In 2008 Amnesty International admonished the Turkish government for threats to rescind healthcare. Said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey: ‘The steps to deprive children suspected of involvement in the demonstrations and their families of health care and other benefits are a form of collective punishment and violate the right of all persons to health and to an adequate standard of living, without discrimination.’

Politicians are sometimes punished for ‘politicising’ the healthcare issue. Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of the municipality of Sur in the city of Diyarbakır, often uses Kurdish in his official capacity. A few years back, for the mere suggestion that his district print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, he was accused (but later acquitted) of aiding a terrorist organisation.

The issue of access to healthcare is an important one that does not get much attention outside of the region. It is a problem in Syria as well for thousands of Kurds who have no access to health care because they have been denied citizenship.

[For an overview of health problems faced by many Kurds in Turkey as a result of years of war, see Kristiina Koivunen’s excellent work: The Invisible War in North Kurdistan]


Medical Chamber request to use Kurdish rejected. ANF, 13 December 2010.

Korkut, Tolga. Medical Association Prints Kurdish Guide for Doctors. Bianet, 24 March 2009.

Mesopotamia Health Days

Toumani, Meline. Minority Rules. New York Times, 17 February 2008.

Turk: DTK to work to extend democracy. ANF, 07 December 2010.

Turkey: Governor threatens to deprive Kurdish demonstrators and their families of health care. Amnesty International, 11 November 2008.

Turkey is now Comedy Central

Being led into the courthouse

The trial, arguably the largest in the history of Turkey, began last week. They really haven’t even started yet though as they’re still reading out the 7,500 page indictment.  If they read 40 pages an hour and read continuously for eight hours a day, that’s 23.5 days just to read the indictment.  And the trial goes until 12 November—16 days from now.

Day after day the imprisoned Kurdish politicians and lawyers are brought into the courthouse.  Each is allowed to be accompanied by one family member.  There are also nearly 300 lawyers defending the accused.  Needless to say, the courthouse is packed.

The Kurds on trial are not allowed to defend themselves in Kurdish.  At rollcall, however, they say in Kurdish Ez li vir im.  Ez amade me. I am here.  I am ready.  Turkish law says that if the defendants know Turkish well enough, then they have to use Turkish in court.

Evin Cetin, a Kurdish jurist and politician from Sweden who is observing the trial says that ‘[p]reventing the defendants from speaking in their mother tongue is illegal according to international standards because this means preventing the defendants from defending themselves. It was the court’s duty to bring in interpreters and not depriving them of the right to speak Kurdish.’

She also believes that the defendants will stay in prison until after parliamentary elections in 2011, because Erdoğan’s AK Party wants to ‘weaken the Kurds and deprive the Kurdish front of its progressive and seasoned politicians.’

Osman Baydemir, Mayor of Diyarbakır, is also a defendant.  He is on trial for the charge of ‘terrorism’ and thinks that some defendants will ‘be released in order to please Europe but there will be more arrests too.’

Baydemir said on Wednesday of the trial: ‘If it is a crime to demand my culture, identity, language then yes I am a criminal.’

On top of this, TRT chose this week to launch the first-ever comedy show in Kurdish on the state-run TRT6 channel.  Cîran, Cîran, which translates as ‘Neighbour, Neighbour’ was announced with great fanfare and is about a few expatriate Kurdish families living in Istanbul.  There was a gala event at a posh hotel with government officials, media officials, and others to watch a preview of the show.

Selahattin Demirtaş, BDP co-chair, slammed TRT6 on Tuesday asking why Kurdish could be broadcast on the state-run channel but not used in a court of law.  Demirtaş said that this shows Erdoğan’s inconsistency in dealing with the Kurds. ‘If they are your brothers then let them speak their language. Erdoğan is always saying the parliament is the place to solve the problem then he should not treat Kurdish politicians like political hostages.’

So on the TV you have slapstick comedy (in Kurdish) and in Diyarbakır a farcical, politicised trial of Kurdish politicians and humanitarians (in Turkish).  Which is the comedy?

When Baydemir called for demands for Kurdish culture, identity, and language it is doubtful he was thinking of something as inane as Cîran, Cîran.


Fifth day of trial against Kurdish politicians started. ANF News Agency, 25 October 2010.

Baydemir: We want a regional parliament. Rojhelat, 27 October 2010.

Deniz, Mediya and Fatima Avci. Trial of Kurds Viewed as Touchstone of Turkish Democracy. Rudaw, 26 October 2010.

First Kurdish sit-com to kick off on the state-run TRT 6. World Bulletin, 23 October 2010.

Demirtas: PM is considering the defendants as political hostages. ANF News Agency, 26 October 2010.

A response to: Is Syria Cooperating Militarily with Turkey Against the PKK?

An article appeared last week in Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor entitled ‘Is Syria Cooperating Militarily with Turkey Against the PKK?’ The Terrorism Monitor is ‘designed to be read by policymakers and other specialists yet be accessible to the general public.’ The analysis piece contained therein was written by Wladimir van Wilgenburg, who is described as a student at the University of Utrecht, a freelance writer, and a newspaper editor.

The article itself is a jumble of facts and statements patched together in a vague and incongruous fashion. The author suggests in the first paragraph that ‘accounts of greater military cooperation [between Syria and Turkey] may be premature.’

I do not argue with his presumption of prematurity, but rather his analysis and misstatement of facts. Syrian-Turkish relations are extraordinarily complex. They cannot be reduced down to a mere ‘concern over Kurdish nationalism.’ The author states this as the only reason as to why ‘Syria maintains good ties with Turkey.’ There are also water rights issues, economic partnerships, and other geopolitical concerns. Trade, for example, is expected to reach $5 billion by 2012 between the two countries. These reasons, at least, should have been given mention.

Van Wilgenburg suggests that the Adana Treaty was the beginning of improved relations between the two countries and says the agreement was signed in 1999. In fact, it was signed on 20 October 1998. Credit is then given mostly to the ruling Turkish AK Party (Justice and Development Party) for the ‘significant strengthening’ of Turco-Syrian relations. This strengthening he writes has ‘created positive change for the Kurds in Syria.’ Really?

The evidence of positive change given in the article is that there is now ‘visa-free travel between Syria and Turkey.’ True, there is. But are Kurds from Syria now suddenly flocking to the Sanko Park shopping mall in Gaziantep (Dîlok)? Many Kurds cannot leave Syria because they are stateless and have no right to travel documents. Visa-free travel is meaningless.

On the one hand there is the mention of this so-called ‘positive change for the Kurds in Syria’ but on the other hand the author says that since the 2004 Qamişlo uprising Damascus has taken ‘harsher measures against Kurdish nationalists.’ I don’t understand the dichotomy here. Good things happen to Kurds who ‘behave’ and assimilate and those who celebrate Newroz are punished? Is that what that means?

After the uprising in Qamişlo, Damascus lashed out at all Kurds; not just the supposed ‘Kurdish nationalists.’ Students, journalists, politicians, singers, teachers, men, women, children, young or old; all were targets. Perhaps the author categorises them all as nationalists.

And just how many Kurds (nationalist or not) are there in Syria? Van Wilgenburg states in his article that the Kurdish population in Syria is ‘3 million forming 16% of the population.’ If you read any scholarly work on Syria’s Kurds (e.g. Tejel, Yildiz, Lowe, to name a few) or any report on Syria from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW), a figure of 9 to 10% is usually cited. The author even used one of HRW’s reports as one of his sources, which clearly says that the number of Kurds is ‘estimated at approximately 1.7 million—roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population.’

While it is true that specific statistics regarding the number of Kurds within the boundaries of the Syrian state are hard to come by, a figure of 16% is grossly inflated. I searched for any reference to find that figure of 16% and the only match I found is from Wikipedia, which states that Kurds are ‘16% of the country’s population i.e. about three million’. So much for scholarship.

The author concludes his analysis saying that ‘Syria and Turkey will need such cooperation [political and security] to curtail the threat posed by Kurdish nationalism.’ I will conclude by saying that with only 1.7m Kurdish nationalists instead of 3 million as stated in the article, Kurdish nationalism is much less of a threat. So let’s all go shopping across the border and buy some red, yellow, and green clothing for next year’s Newroz.

What I have just written is designed ‘to be read by policymakers and other specialists yet be accessible to the general public’…and nationalists.

AlJazeera gets it wrong on political party ban reform

Was just reading an article in AlJazeera that stated the following:

And Turkey’s Kurds, who arguably benefit most from the proposed changes that make it more difficult to ban political parties, having seen judges repeatedly throw their own representatives out of parliament, are boycotting the entire referendum.

This is not true!! The original provision to change the law on banning political parties was removed from the final reform package. It is not part of tomorrow’s referendum.

When voting took place on individual articles of the reform package in early May, this particular provision was rejected.

The AKP had wanted to make bans conditional on the approval of a parliamentary committee comprised of five members from each of the three biggest parties, moving the decision-making process from the courts to the parliament.

This proposal was rejected by three votes after a number of AKP legislators voted against it. The pro-Kurdish BDP also voted against it because the proposed article would have excluded the BDP from the 5-member committee.

Under current law, the chief prosecutor can file a case with the Constitutional Court to have a party closed, fined or its members banned from politics.

AlJazeera says that confusion shrouds Turkey’s reform package.  AlJazeera, too, is confused.

Interview wth Ahmet Türk

Ahmet Türk: 'The government and the state must assure that rights and freedoms will be guaranteed'

Interview wth Ahmet Türk from Today’s Zaman

05 September  2010 – The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has made another move and topped the country’s agenda.

The democratic initiative, the events following the entry of inhabitants of the Makhmour camp into the country, the unexpectedly escalating violence, the local demands for “democratic autonomy” and the organization’s decision to de-escalate the situation, etc. — all of these recent developments show how difficult it is to analyze the Kurdish issue. Which moves means what? What sort of developments may we expect from the region? Why does the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) insist on boycotting the referendum although this means shooting itself in the foot? The questions can go on. And these questions were answered by the co-chairman of the BDP-affiliated Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Ahmet Türk, speaking to Sunday’s Zaman.

Türk, a veteran politician, inherited the post of “agha” from his grandfather and father and the profession of politician from his elder brother, who was assassinated when he was a deputy. He tries to express the intricate balances unique to the region, although at times this might contrast with the democratic values he upholds. For instance, he says that he supports the boycott, but does not refrain from asserting, “I prefer ‘yes’ from a conscientious and ethical standpoint, if we are to chose only between ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” As he expresses dissatisfaction with the amendments, he acknowledges that “even if very radical amendments are made, the current Constitutional Court will not approve them.”

Do you really want the Kurdish problem to be solved?

We not only want it to be solved, but also are ready to do anything to this end. Our sole desire is to put an end to the suffering and create a country where people can live freely, equally and peacefully. Who benefits from lack of a solution? We do not benefit from it. Rather, we are victimized by it. The lack of solution leads to the growth of hatred and anger.

Now consider this: You are the ruling party and you are supposed to deal with a problem which hasn’t been resolved for 80 years. What would your approach be?

A problem that’s been unresolved for 80 years means that the core of the issue has always been ignored. Today’s conditions are different. There is now a group that does not accept the denial of their language, culture and identity. If people express their demands, then the problem can be solved in a more constructive manner. Acceptance of Kurdish identity is neither the state’s nor the government’s favor.

Yet we know what the approach toward the issue was just 15 or 20 years ago.

Of course, this is true. But there is a group of people who are developing a sense of community. These people seek a system where they can enjoy their own identity, culture and language and participate in it. The fact that debates amount to this level stems from the intensively expressed demands. It is obvious that in today’s democratic world, denying identities and cultures does not play nice with democratic values.

But in the past, there was a ban on speaking Kurdish, and this ban has been abolished. Can’t you acknowledge any progress?

We need to see one thing clearly. Neither the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] nor the governments led by Süleyman Demirel or Bülent Ecevit have ever said: “There are Kurds among my citizens. Their differences are an asset.” The point where we stand today does not owe anything to their mentality. Rather, any progress we have made owes to much suffering and debate [on the Kurdish question].

Let’s suppose you are in power and you are preparing for the elections. You get different reactions from different parts of Turkey. What would your approach be under these circumstances?

Of course, we know about the balances in Turkey and are aware of a nationalist, racist mentality blocking the country’s progress. We also know that the government has backpedaled from its former polities under the influence of this mindset. I always reiterate that if the government could garner support from the opposition, it might have been easier to make progress with regard to certain demands from the Kurds. We need to be realistic. But leadership requires courage. To become the chairman of a political party or head of the ruling party is one thing, and to be a leader is another. A leader is supposed to make important decisions for the prosperity of the country, even if this involves some temporary difficulties. There are many examples of this around the world. For instance, very radical steps were taken in Spain in decisions relating to the Basque and Catalan regions.

But our case may not be similar to them. There is the Ergenekon problem here.

There were gangs and Gladios there as well. To do nothing just because our case is different, is that acceptable? No event is identical to another. Basque is not the same as our case and neither is Catalan, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. But, how will we find a fitting example? Leadership is not an easy task. No leader has risen up in Turkey to lead the general public. The country has always been governed by those who were submissive to the status quo. This is a fact. The power that founded, or claimed to be the owner of, the republic has always blocked political venues. And since politicians did not have full trust in democracy or since their perspective on the people and their diversity was not within a democratic framework, they failed to handle this problem.

What unexpected steps can the people in the region take in order to exhibit their determination concerning the settlement of the problem?

Actually, they are already taking such steps. Until now, there have been cease-fires seven or eight times. It is not easy to manage these processes properly. The risk of provocation is always there. You may in all sincerity want to attain a peaceful solution, but you may unexpectedly face a provocation which you do not like and which is not approved by the government or the state either.

What will happen if the PKK lays down its weapons as a sign of good intentions?  The PKK should be disbanded. OK, but how? Shouldn’t the state provide an atmosphere of confidence for this?  Suppose it declares its intention to lay down its arms. What difficulties may arise after such a declaration?

Do you trust your state so much that you expect the people with guns to do so and accept being disbanded without any guarantees or assurances? Suppose the PKK is disbanded. What will happen next? Will its members be imprisoned? Can they become involved in politics? Will they mingle with other people as ordinary citizens? I am not suggesting that they should not leave their weapons, but this will not be possible unless suitable conditions are prepared. We should not deceive ourselves. I recently said that they may be disbanded under the supervision of the United Nations. People raised hell even about this statement.

But shouldn’t very serious steps be taken in order to solve the problem?

Of course there should be, but what I am saying is that the government and the state must assure that rights and freedoms will be guaranteed. If this is not done, you and I may trust [the state], but someone else will not. These people have been in a struggle for 30 years. That’s why we say that assurance should be give to them. A big country like Turkey can no longer be governed using a strictly centralist mentality.

In your opinion, what unexpected steps may come from the government toward the solution?

Some of the executives and mayors that belong to our party have been in jail for one-and-a-half years. They have yet to be brought to court.

So you think they have been denied a fair trial?

Yes. We want them to be released. There is also the unfair election threshold which is fixed at 10 percent. We want it to be decreased to 5 percent at least, which is the highest among European countries. The antidemocratic laws under which we are litigated according to counterterrorism procedures whenever we make a statement must be abolished as well. Even the government’s declaration of intent will be a great chance for a peaceful process.

So both parties demand a lot of things from each other.

But it is the government which must take steps as it is they who govern Turkey. I am not ruling the country. If you are running a country, then you are responsible for every single matter, small or big. No one should try to put the blame on the Kurds.

We have been in Diyarbakır for several days. The majority of the people here say the referendum package should be accepted. Indeed, you also say, “If Kurds have to choose between ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ all of them will say ‘yes’.” Given this, the BDP fails to satisfy the people’s expectations. Isn’t this a sort of tutelage?

Mr. Prime Minister and the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) leader claim that they are the true victims of Sept. 12. If you do not mention what Kurds suffered in Diyarbakır Prison, no one will accept that victimization. Kurds represent the group that was victimized the most. Still, there is not a single article in the referendum package that will improve the situation for Kurds, is there? We cannot say “no” to the amendments. But we do not have any reason to say “yes” either because these arrangements have been made without taking Kurds into consideration.

Will the changes to the structure of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and the Constitutional Court not have any effect on the Kurdish people?

I am not comparing the amendments with current practice. Of course, they are better than the current situation. But I am expressing my reaction. I am telling the government, “I have been victimized and I have suffered, but you have not taken any steps to improve the situation for Kurds.” The amendments you propose do not satisfy me, so I do not go to the polls, I say. This is what you fail to see.

Why didn’t you lend support to the article concerning party closures? Weren’t you supposed to support that amendment?

If only that article failed to pass while all other articles were easily approved, we are not to be blamed. The AK Party had the power to pass it.

Aren’t there Kurdish civil servants or disabled Kurds? Aren’t there Kurdish women, children or victims who are adversely affected by the current structure of the judiciary?

The package fails to satisfy me, in a nutshell. Ask a number of times, and my response will be the same. The package is far from satisfying me as a human being and as a politician. I am not comparing Sept. 12 with the current situation. Already, no one is discussing the individual articles. Listen to the politicians. Are they talking about the content?

But the package is raising the standing of living for all of us, isn’t it?

We, too, care about these steps. But if democratization, transformation or change does not happen, and if the tutelary regime does not disappear, this is because there are Kurds here. If you do not take steps to ease conditions for Kurds, it will not satisfy me. Throughout the history of the republic, there were three things which were mentioned as obstacles to change. The first one was communism, and it’s gone. What were the two that remained? The Kurdish issue and Shariah. The status quo and the tutelary mentality survive by leaning on these two factors which they use as threats in the face of demands for change. And the Kurdish issue is the most complicated one. If you do not take it as a basis and enact change and transformation, then Kurds won’t say, “Good things are happening.” This is because the system that denies their existence will still be firmly in place.

With what you say, you seem to imply that not a single good step has been taken during the process?

No, it is not true. If you compare the 1980s and today, you must honestly acknowledge they are poles apart. We don’t deny that. Although significant steps have to be taken to help create suitable conditions for coexistence, it is meaningless to make mention of small moves such as the opening TRT Şeş, which is intended to silence Kurds.

Won’t you be happy with a change in the high judiciary?

We are talking about democracy, not a transfer of power from one hand to another. We are discussing how judges should see Turkey and democracy.

What are the changes you find important?

I am not comparing the content with the Constitution of Sept. 12. But there aren’t any amendments that will fulfill Kurds’ democratic demands. There is also this: When you combine them into a package, you postpone the possibility of a new constitution. This, too, should be acknowledged. This was always the case.

But the prime minister says they will draft a new constitution. Let me give you another scenario: When the preparations for a new constitution start one year before the general elections, the opposition will say: “You don’t have the legitimacy. Let the new parliament do it.”

True, let me tell you something more serious: Even if very radical amendments are made, the current Constitutional Court will not approve them.

In which case don’t you shoot yourselves in the foot?

No. We exhibit a stance. You cannot deny Kurds’ demands.

But you say the people will choose “yes” if they are left to themselves. If their demands are not fulfilled, why do they vote “yes?”

They are already left to themselves. No one is saying a thing to them. We take the will of the people as our basis. But what we say is that we, as politicians, are not satisfied with the package.

You say that you won’t go to the polls since there is nothing that will satisfy Kurds. This statement implies that the BDP no longer claims to be a party that represents the whole country, doesn’t it?

Rather, it is the state or the government that forced the BDP to become or seem like a regional party. If you impose the 10 percent election threshold and force the BDP to nominate candidates from a limited staff, then you eliminate the possibility of its becoming a party representing the whole country. If the election threshold is lowered to 5 percent, I will have the chance to nominate not only Kurds or BDP members, but also Turkish intellectuals, democrats and Islamists. Only in this way can a political party start to appeal to the whole country. In this way, I can address the people with projects that have a broader appeal.

How would you interpret a “yes” coming out of the referendum?

What if those boycotting equal those saying yes? Let us see what happens. I would like to comment on this after seeing the percentages. Both “yes” and “boycott” will come out, in almost equal terms. Their percentages will be similar. There will be a serious boycott.

Is there any likelihood of the boycott decision being loosened or lifted?

As I said before, there are expectations and if they are fulfilled, this attitude may change. To make use of a process where weapons are silenced is, for us, more important than the referendum. The referendum does not excite us very much. Let me reiterate: I prefer “yes” from a conscientious and ethical standpoint if we are to choose only between “yes” and “no.” But by exhibiting a political stance, I say that the package lacks any real steps for solving Turkey’s biggest problem. If people have expectations from me as a political party and if Parliament and the government, which are supposed to fulfill them, do not take our demands seriously, then I don’t have the right to tell my people to go to the polls to say “yes.”

In Turkey, governments always suffer from an inability to wield power. As this tutelage is being eliminated, you would expect a swift response to your demands. Doesn’t this play into the hands of the tutelage?

Are you kidding? Which tutelage is being eliminated? Yes, some steps are being taken, but you cannot say that the government is killing that mentality. Rather, we want it to show that this distorted, small move will not solve the issue. An accurate assessment and a radical solution are required. The statement made today will not bring progress. It is time a new mentality is asserted. Our expectation is that the state should acknowledge this.

The PKK decided to de-escalate the situation after declaring its boycott decision. And then the opposition started to argue that the AK Party is in the same boat as the BDP and the PKK. Some see the decision to de-escalate the situation as referendum trap.

We are not in the same boat as anyone. We are not supporters or opponents of anyone. We side with an approach that makes democracy and solutions its foundation. Our decisions may be likened to those of another party. But these may differ in the future. We support an approach that is reasonable, that is aware of popular expectations and that is based on democracy.

But you gave up just on a signal from İmralı?

No, I was actually telling my colleagues that it was incorrect to withdraw since the beginning. In the final analysis, one needs to consult with the views of all groups when formulating a policy. The demand for democratic autonomy is not new. We have been expressing it since the beginning. It is in the program of both the Democratic Society Party [DTP] and the BDP. We want to ensure integrity in the proper manner, and not to seek separation.

After meeting with Jalal Talabani you said, “The PKK’s armed struggle is doing harm to the Kurdish people.” Do you still back this idea?

I have always asserted that problems cannot be solved with guns. Democracy and civilian politics should be reinforced. Guns should no longer be used to secure one’s rights.


Today’s Zaman