The Democratic Opening and Illusion of Advanced Democracy in Turkey

By Muharrem Erbey, president of the Diyarbakır chapter of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, writing from Diyarbakır prison

Muharrem Erbey

Voltaire said, “those who have lost freedom it lost it because they didn’t defend it.” The American Declaration of Independence of 1776, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, and the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights all emphasize resistance to repression as a right and personal duty. Rights and freedoms can be restricted in any society; the issue is to what extent, and that extent mustn’t tip the scale of justice. Human rights defenders and people of conscience set out to fulfill their personal duties when repression in defense of power intensifies and destabilizes this scale.

Both in authentically democratic societies and those where the exercise of rights is a façade maintained through an illusion, we human rights defenders have adopted as a principle the protection of human honor without regard to race, language, ethnic identity, religion, class, or sex.

Founded in 1986, the Human Rights Association of Turkey (İHD) has struggled to help peoples’ search for freedom access justice. Twenty-three of our members have been extra-judicially executed because of their human rights work, hundreds of members and managers have been imprisoned for prolonged periods, and the organization has been subjected to thousands of lawsuits.

İHD documents the rampant violations committed in our region with data, reports and observations, and supporst victims both in the legal process and the wider struggle for justice. We share our data with the local, national and international community. We criticize. To those who claim that human rights abuses have ended, we say no, they’re continuing. We have been and are being targeted for this reason.

The president of the İHD branch in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the Kurdish region of Turkey, was last arrested in 1995, during one of the darkest periods of the conflict here. No other branch presidents have been arrested in the last 15 years, although they’ve been subjected to about 300 investigations and lawsuits. I was abruptly arrested in December 2009 as part of the single investigation currently pending against me. I’m not currently facing any other lawsuits or investigations.

Human rights has become chewing gum for everbody, but we’re being silenced.

When deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç and interior minister Beşir Atalay came to Diyarbakır to meet with us, we told them that we heartily supported the so-called ‘democratic opening’, which was begun by the government at the end of 2008. We emphasized that we wanted to help give the initiative substance, and that concrete steps were urgently needed to stop violence and put an end to deaths. Regarding the Kurdish issue, we pointed out that a solution required legalizing the use of the Kurdish language in the public realm, transfer of authority to local administrations, the creation of a civilian, egalitarian, pluralist constitution, and PKK members’ entry into civilian politics through an unconditional amnesty. Our work caused discomfort.

The Kurdish issue, which is Turkey’s oldest and most life-claiming, can be resolved through the participation and joint effort of a wide range of institutions, organizations, and other actors. Most human rights violations in Turkey are related to the Kurdish issue in one way or another. There have been 29 successive major Kurdish rebellions in the last 205 years, the first one occurring in Mosul in 1806. The 40 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are deprived of basic rights and freedoms, perceived as second-class citizens, exposed to torture and maltreatment, prevented from freely exercising their language and culture, without status, and unable to sufficiently participate in administration.

It’s significant that, although history has known the Kurds for thousands of years, neither the dominant powers in Kurdish lands nor international forces recognize the Kurds, choosing instead to ignore the posture adopted against them.

I’ve been in prison since 24 December 2009, for approximately 18 months, due to claims that I ‘belittled’ the state in speeches about human rights and the Kurdish issue I delivered at the UN building in Geneva as well as the English, Belgian, and Swedish parliaments; advised victims in their applications to the European Court of Human Rights; prepared projects on women’s, children’s, and human rights; participated in work on preparation of a civilian, pluralist constitution; frequently participated in press statements delivered by various NGOs, and that I did so well; gave the PKK ‘morale’; wrote to public prosecutors and the Turkish parliament’s human rights commission on behalf of victims (indeed, the government prosecutor later characterized these writings as if they are furthering the goals of PKK); and that I’m a member of the Turkey Assembly of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK/TM), an organization said to be an extension of the PKK.

When I went before the public prosecutor and judge responsible for my case, I admitted to all of these activities (with the exception of being a KCK member), said that I stand behind them and have no regrets, and stated that I’ll do them all again when I’m out of prison.

In May 2010, and 7,500 page indictment was released. The folder dealing with 152 suspects, 104 of whom are being held in prison pending the result of the trial, amounts to 132,000 pages when supplementary ‘evidence’ is included; among those facing prosecution are 15 elected mayors, 2 chairmen of general provincial councils, and scores of politicians. We’ve been in prison for 18, 20, 24 months each. The claims about me include evidence from a ‘secret witness,’ and promote false and illusionary statements. In our first trial, we declared that we’d be giving our statements in our mother language, Kurdish, as well as Turkish. The chief judge turned off our microphones, characterizing Kurdish as an “Unknown Language”, and the prosecution has stalled.

Since the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, there’s been an effort to homogenize all ethnic identities through such methods as repression, forced migration, assimilation, arrests and extrajudicial killings carried out by unknown perpetrators.

The Turkish system has always resisted change by adopting a conservative stance against different identities and demands for freedom. In 2002, there were 52,000 convicts and suspects in Turkish prisons; as of April 2011, there are 123,000 inmates, most of them convicted.

Does the imprisonment of opposition politicians, critical journalists, and human rights defenders signify that Turkey’s regime has become totalitarian? All developments are implemented in the name of advanced democracy. The acceptance of difference is the essence of genuine equality. Attempts to suppress difference indicate inequality.

A little more tolerance, cooperation, empathy. Let’s not forget that everyone has the right to comment on their own society’s development and that doing so is a moral duty.

People must know how to embrace suffering and pain for freedom, to take nourishment from these difficulties. Notwithstanding those whose hearts have hardened, who feed on their own rage, who place unbearable emotional burdens on their heart, we stubbornly find nourishment and power in freedom. Everything for equality, freedom and justice…

Translated from the Turkish by Jake Hess / jakerhess@gmail.com

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2 thoughts on “The Democratic Opening and Illusion of Advanced Democracy in Turkey

  1. A very brave man. I pray that you are released from these trumped up charges immediately and can go on to resume your important work as President of the Amed Chapter of the Human Rights Association. It is a scandal that Turkey can do this to you, to seek to silence you by misusing its legal system. Our thoughts are with you dear Muharrem. Best regards, Azad

  2. Why the whole world is blind about that? If anything wrong happens in any country against human rights – all world talk about it. When human rights are broken in a case of Kurds – in fact all that what they are doing to Kurds are more than just breaking human rights – the world is silent. Amazing!

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