In October of last year 26 refugees from Mexmur refugee camp and eight members of the PKK crossed into Turkey at the Habur gate. The ‘Peace Group’ (Peace and Democratic Solution Group, or Koma Aştî û Çareseriya Demokratîk in Kurdish) as it became known was welcomed enthusiastically by thousands and thousands of well wishers in the area. The returnees were not prosecuted by the authorities upon their return. Turkish PM Erdoğan said at the time, ‘Good things are happening in Turkey. This is hope.’
Now, eight months later, all of the returnees, with the exception of four minors, are on trial. All 30 have been charged with ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’. The eight PKK members face additional charges of ‘being a member of a terrorist organisation’, while the refugees from Mexmur face charges of ‘committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.’
The 30 are on trial in three groups at two separate Diyarbakır courts. Yesterday morning ten of them were arrested by the court for being a possible flight risk. Those from PKK face up to 20 years in prison. The returnees from the refugee camp face up to 15 years each.
What has happened in the past eight months that completely reversed the direction of the so-called Kurdish Opening, or as it would later be dubbed, the Democratic Initiative?
The Turkish government has taken an increasingly hard-line approach towards the Kurds. At the same time, the PKK has increased its activities in the region causing further backlash from Ankara.
In November the government held a parliamentary debate on the initiative. Interior Minister Beşir Atalay announced to the parliament that he intended to permanently end the conflict with the PKK in an open-ended process that would end terrorism and raise Turkey’s level of democracy. Head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal accused Erdoğan of instituting a ‘plan to destroy and split Turkey.’ Then-leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, said the AKP’s initiative was a ‘PKK initiative’ and charged that the government was negotiating and making deals with terrorists.
Ahmet Türk, former head of the now-banned DTP strongly criticised both the CHP and the MHP saying that they were ‘trying very hard to reverse the process because they have nothing to offer society apart from conflict, bloodshed and tears.’ He called their approach to the democratisation process racist, separatist, and dangerous.
The next month, December, saw the closure of the DTP and widespread arrests of local and national Kurdish politicians, activists, and students. Those arrested were from the DTP and its successor, the BDP. Who can forget the now iconic photograph of BDP politicians lined up outside a courthouse in Diyarbakir in handcuffs? The purge lasted for months and more than 1,500 people were arrested.
Though there was intense opposition, Svante Cornell, a Swedish academic now at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that while the AKP had good intentions, the whole process ‘failed not mainly because of the opposition, but because it mismanaged the process, had unclear goals, and did not succeed in controlling the flow of information.’
In recent months the PKK has expanded its attacks on Turkish military targets. Thirty-five soldiers have died. Earlier this month PKK spokesperson Ahmed Danees told Reuters: ‘Two days ago, we started waging attacks against the Turkish army in response to their repeated military attacks against the party and political attacks facing Kurds in Turkey’. He also announced that they decided to break the unilateral ceasefire that had been in place since April 2009.
Now, some say, the AKP may adopt a more nationalist rhetoric and harsher tactics in order not to lose votes to the rightwing MHP. In fact on Tuesday Erdoğan launched into strong attacks against the BDP, the country’s pro-Kurdish party. Said Erdoğan, ‘…saying peace won’t bring peace. Those who are in direct or indirect contact with the PKK are accomplices to murder.’ This could be interpreted as a prelude to a possible ban of the party. After all, the general election is just over a year away.
Meanwhile, in Diyarbakır, demonstrations and meetings against the Peace Group members’ trials are continuing. The Diyarbakır Initiative for Peace group, supported by the Human Rights Association (IHD), and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have organised gatherings in the Peace Watch Tent. The tent serves as a centre for speeches and rallies. BDP parliamentarians, Green Party co-chair, chair and former chair of the Human Rights Association (IHD), members of Kurdish Writers Association, regional mayors and many NGO representatives are there showing their support for the returnees. The peace watch tent, erected in a nearby park, is decorated with banners reading, ‘Peace is on trial, bear witness.’
10 arrested as trial begins in Turkey for Habur returnees. Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, 17 June 2010.
Support for arrested peace delegates spreads. DiHA/Dicle News Agency, 17 June 2010.
Jones, Dorian. Friction Between Turkey, Kurdish Rebels Increasing. VOA News, 17 June 2010
Head, Jonathan. PKK returnees on trial in Turkey. BBC, 17 June 2010.
Stephens, Philip. Turkey puts Kurd activists on trial. Financial Times, 18 June 2010.
PKK rebels say scrap ceasefire on Turkish forces. Reuters, 03 June 2010.
BDP takes arbitrary arrests of Kurdish politicians into EU Court. Rojhelat, 18 May 2010.
Dewleta Tirk ‘açilim’ a xwe qedand; Endamên Koma Aştiyê hatin girtin. HawarNet, 17 June 2010.
Hacaoğlu, Selcan. Attacks threaten unusual Turkish Outreach to Kurds. The Huffington Post, 16 June 2010.
Endamên Koma Aştiyê parêznameya hevpar dan. Firat News, 17 June 2010.
From Kurdistan Commentary:
PKK Peace Caravan, 21 October 2009.
AKP’s Kurdish Initiative, 15 November 2009.
Arrests of Peace Caravan Members, 11 January 2010.