Just over a week ago in Dersim, Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir called for Kurdish autonomy. He calls the BDP’s autonomy project a ‘project of living together’ and not one of secession. Baydemir explains that in addition to the Turkish National Assembly, there would be a Kurdistan Regional Parliament. He envisions a Turkish flag and ‘our flag of green, red, and yellow…flapping next to it.’ He also suggested autonomous regions in the Central Black Sea and other areas.
The response to his call for autonomy was swift and harsh. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek lashed out at Baydemir, saying his statements were ‘nonsensical,’ and accused him of speaking recklessly. Some political scientists said what Baydemir proposed was ‘not possible in a unitary state and that Turkey cannot tolerate such a thing.’ Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli was also highly critical of Baydemir’s ‘absurd autonomy comments.’
Baydemir says the autonomy project is misunderstood and he stands by his statements. ‘This is the solution for Kurdish issue. There is no need to talk indirectly,’ he said a few days later.
An investigation has been launched regarding his statements, a sign that free speech in Turkey is far from free. ‘How can the Kurdish problem be resolved if people are not allowed to debate it,’ asked Sezgin Tanrıkulu, former president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. Öztürk Türkdoğan, chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD), noted that it was against the European Convention on Human Rights to probe Baydemir over his statements.
The local Prosecutor’s Office, however, has asked for the video footage and voice recordings of Baydemir’s speech from the Dersim (Tunceli) police department as security services had recorded the panel.
Baydemir is no stranger to prosecutions and harassment. He and other regional mayors complain that they are so overwhelmed with court cases that it keeps them from their daily commitments. Baydemir said in 2008 that he has to present himself to the Prosecutor’s office an average of twice a week.
In an interview with Asharq Alawsat in December 2007, three and a half years after he was elected mayor of Diyarbakır, Baydemir said that the lawsuits filed against him ‘since I assumed the position, are more than the cases for which I pleaded [as a lawyer before entering politics]. If I get convicted in all the cases against me, I would have to spend 280 years in jail.’
Soon after he was elected to office, Baydemir began using Kurdish in the municipality’s promotional posters and in many of his talks. Such direct and public use of Kurdish was important for him, Baydemir asserted, as a way of signalling the failure of the state’s effort to destroy Kurdish culture and offering a way to ‘re-establish links with the people.’ Investigations have been opened again him for printing invitations to events in Kurdish and for using the letter ‘W’ in a Newroz card.
In response to Turkish pressure on Copenhagen to close Kurdish satellite station Roj-TV, 53 Kurdish mayors wrote to then Danish PM Anders Rasmussen in December 2005, stating that silencing Roj-TV ‘would mean the loss of an important vehicle in the struggle for democracy and human rights’ in Turkey. A case was opened against them and the prosecution argued that by sending the letter, the mayors had ‘knowingly and willingly’ supported the PKK, and sought sentences of up to 15 years.
Less than one month after the local elections of March 2009, Baydemir was sentenced for calling PKK members ‘guerillas’ instead of ‘terrorists.’
In late December of last year, after the DTP was closed down and scores of politicians were arrested, Baydemir made these comments: ‘Just yesterday we said the oak tree [the symbol of BDP] means hope. I am addressing the prime minister and the government with apologies to my people: Where in your body did the oak branch get stuck? We say, Fuck you, to those who separate us into doves and hawks. They will not find one Kurd to betray his own.’
Baydemir was accused under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Law, of insulting Turkishness, the Republic, its institutions and organs of the government. When asked about the investigation, Baydemir said, ‘One word: congratulations.’
For all that you do, Mayor Baydemir, for your selfless promotion of Kurdish rights, I have one word for you: Congratulations.
Oktem, Kerem. The patronising embrace: Turkey’s new Kurdish strategy. Stiftung Forschungsstelle Schweiz-Turkei. Basel, February 2008
The Voice of the Kurds: Q&A with Osman Baydemir. Asharq Alawsat, 20 December 2007.
Confidence Building Between Turks and Iraqi Kurds. June 2009, Project Director: David L. Phillips, The Atlantic Council of the United States.
Turkey: Judiciary harassment against Osman Baydemir. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, 12 April 2007.
Baydemir says ‘congratulations’ for his investigation. Hurriyet, 28 December 2009.
Kurdish Mayor prosecuted over his speech on Autonomy. Rojhelat Kurdish Observer, 02 August 2010.
Diyarbakır mayor issues call for autonomous Turkish regions. Hurriyet, 01 August 2010.
SE Turkish mayor refuses to back down from remarks. Hurriyet, 04 August 2010.
Zibak, Fatma. ‘Kurds should be free to discuss non-violent options’. Sunday’s Zaman, 08 August 2010.
Watts, Nicole. Pro-Kurdish Mayors in As-If Democracy: Symbolic Politics in Diyarbakır. World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES, Irbil, 6-9 September 2006.
Prosecutor seeks 15 years for Kurdish mayors over Denmark letter. Institut Kurde de Paris, 03 April 2007.