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

Solidarity with Hunger Strikers: Urgent Call from BDP



Today, it has been 53 days since Kurdish political prisoners in the Turkish prisons began indefinite hunger strikes on September 12, 2012. At this moment, health status of prisoners on hunger strike is severely impaired and came to a very critical stage. This announcement is prepared in order to inform international public opinion that we are extremely concerned that loss of life may be imminent and ask your solidarity to prevent it.

On September 12, 2012; 64 Kurdish political prisoners have started an indefinite and irreversible hunger strike in 7 Prisons in Turkey.

On 22 September 2012, ten days later 79 more prisoners joined the hunger strike. With new participants these numbers have been continuously increasing. According to joint research of Human Rights Association, Progressive Lawyers Association and Law & Human Rights Commission of Peace and Democracy Party, at least 654 Kurdish political prisoners and convicts in prisons are on an indefinite and irreversible hunger strike in 66 prisons. Imprisoned members of parliament, Mr. Faysal Sarıyıldız, Ms. Gülser Yıldırım and Ms. Selma Irmak and Mayor of Derik, Ms. Çağlar Demirel are also participating to the indefinite hunger strike.

Specifically, the health status of 154 political prisoners that began the hunger strike with the first two groups is severely impaired and their life is under extreme danger and at great vital risk.

In a press release to the public, political prisoners on a hunger strike have made two specific demands and stated that they will not reverse their decision unless their demands are meet. These demands are:

1- The right to education and legal defense in mother tongue.

2- Ending the isolation of Mr. Abdullah Öcalan in Imrali prison in order to creating the conditions for dialogue and negotiation.

According to the above mentioned demands, reason of the hunger strike is not for individual interest or awful conditions of the prisons in Turkey. Political prisoners believe that their existence in prisons is directly related with the conflicts between the Turkish Government and Kurdish political movement. Therefore, the prisoners and arrested politicians are considering themselves as “prisoner of war” or POW. The existing judicial system, the anti-terror law that amended in 2006 and security oriented governing are created a total war against Kurds’ fundamental rights. Freedom of speech, right to demonstration and demanding collective rights of the people perceived as “terrorist activity” by the prosecutors and the government as well. The existing Anti-terror law allows prosecutors to arrest everyone without concrete evidence. Therefore, more than 8000 Kurdish politicians, journalists, advocates, trade unionists and NGO members have been in prisons for many years without any verdict by judges. Many of the participants of the hunger strike are victims of the existing law system. Their legal defenses in mother tongue are not provided due to the monist mentality. This situation is one of the reasons of the hunger strike.

Unfortunately, AKP Government has not any sensitivity or attention to the ongoing hunger strike. Prime Minister Erdoğan clearly lied when he was in Germany. According to Erdoğan, only one prisoner is continuing to the hunger strike. At the same time Minister of Justice announced that 683 prisoners and arrested people are in hunger strike. It is very tragic that, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice are not from different countries. But their speeches are totally different. Unfortunately, PM Erdoğan is not focusing on solving the issue. The main approach of the government is disinforming the hunger strike.

On the other hand, while the people who protest the government because of its insensitivity, AKP Government and its police forces are continuing arrest BDP members and protestors. Yesterday, 97 students were taken custody during the protests in order to prevent democratic opposition. Today, 20 people from BDP, press and NGOs are take in custody by the police raids in Mersin. We believe that, the reason of the ongoing arrests is to prevent solidarity with the hunger strikers.

Therefore, we as BDP, call government to stop accusing BDP or hunger strikers. Government must respect to the Kurdish prisoners demands. The demands are fundamental rights of humanity. Therefore, PM Erdoğan must end this meaningless obstinacy. In case of insist to this negative manner, AKP Government will be main responsible of the closing tragedy.

No time to wait! Everyone from the earth should react to the AKP Government’s totalitarian approach on Kurdish People and their fundamental rights. No state or power can prevent a human’s freedom of speech or defense in mother tongue in democratic countries. No one should live without collective identity in their home country.

BDP urgently calls to government, international public opinion and institutions to prevent losing lives in prisons.




Events on Hunger Strikes

1. Prisoners who are on indefinite hunger strike since September 12 in Siirt E Type Closed Prison have learned aggravate health problems. İHD (HRA) lawyers Roja Arslan and Yavuz Çelepkolu who met with the prisoners on hunger strike in prison, said hunger-striking prisoners does not accept liquid.

2. Rıza Turan who is in Siirt E Type Prison has loss of sight and also director of prison didn’t deliver blanket which is given to him by his family.

3. Eleven women prisoners who are started the hunger strike in Diyarbakır E Type Prison some findings on their health status; weakness, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to sound and noise, irregular blood pressure, excessive weight loss and nose bleeds

4. Four prisoners who are in Şakran T type Prison No 4 were single cells and a place to sleep, clothes, pen and paper to tell their status are not given.

5. Although Berivan Elter who is in hunger strike has health report, a new report was taken and she pick up from Ankara to Diyarbakır ( round trip 36 hours)

6. B1 Vitamin is not given any prisoners in Adana F type Prison

Will botched airstrike lead to regional policy changes?

Will botched airstrike lead to regional policy changes?
by Christian Sinclair

In late December 2011 Turkish military forces bombed a group of Kurdish civilians along the Iraq-Turkey border, killing 34 of the 38 in the group. Eighteen of the 34 who died in the attack were teenagers. The group came from the villages of Gülyazı (Bujeh) and Ortasu (Roboski) in the Uludere district of Sirnak and the attack has now been dubbed the “Roboski massacre” or the “Uludere massacre.” Ankara said it mistook the group for PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters.

Suddenly, five months after the airstrike against these Kurdish civilians, there is intense media coverage of the Roboski massacre. Previously, there had been precious little coverage outside of Kurdish media circles of what is the largest civilian death toll in Turkey’s decades old campaign against the PKK. So why now? Why the coverage?

click for larger image

The 38-person caravan was en route back to Turkey after a trip across the border for fuel, cigarettes, sugar, and other items typically smuggled over the desolate, rugged mountain terrain in this region. As the group came within 50 meters of the border, the sky lit up with bombs dropped from F-16s in a raid lasting 40 minutes. When it was over, 34 charred bodies were left on the snowy mountain trails. The tragic loss of life sparked protests across Turkey but prompted only half-hearted, inconclusive investigations. Amnesty International says it has “doubts about whether [the investigation] is thorough and impartial and will be effective in identifying what happened and those responsible.” Even with international agencies investigating and protests across Europe, there was still very little coverage of the attack in the mainstream Western press.

Last Wednesday, however, the Wall Street Journal injected new life into the story by reporting that a U.S. drone was involved in passing along the intel to the Turkish military about suspicious activity along its border that night in December. Now many Turkish and Western media outlets are covering the story, albeit with competing narratives about who saw what first. It seems that the media interest now comes from the drones, Washington-Ankara relations, and who saw the caravan first, rather than the fact that Turkey, a member of NATO, killed almost three dozen of its own citizens in a questionable air raid.

In Ankara there is what is called a Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell where U.S. and Turkish personnel sit side by side to watch drone feeds in real time. That night, according to U.S. military officials, a predator “was on an eight-hour patrol along the Iraqi-Turkish border when its American controllers spotted the convoy walking toward the Turkish border.” That information was then passed along to the Turkish military, who then directed the Americans to move the drone out of the area.

But Turkey is insisting that there was no U.S. intelligence provided or that the action taken was based on Turkish intelligence. Turkish President Abdullah Gül said before flying to the U.S. for the NATO Summit in Chicago, that  “[i]f the [Turkish] government, concerned authorities, the General Staff make a statement, we all should trust that.” He added that he does not “think it is not right to make such useless polemics.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan said the Uludere operation was “action from footage provided by our aircraft not by U.S. predators” and that particular region “was an area of terrorism.” It seems then with this blanket pronouncement that since Ankara had deemed it “an area of terrorism” then it should not be held responsible for what they have called an “administrative accident.”

This is troubling and the U.S. and other NATO partners need to understand the lens through which Turkey views any shared intelligence. A former senior U.S. military official told WSJ he and fellow officers were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets in their long-running battle with the PKK.

There are other, perhaps more troubling, theories about the WSJ report. In a very “creative” spin on the report, Turkish PM Erdoğan said late last week that he thought it “may be part of a project to undermine the Barack Obama administration as the U.S. presidential election approaches” and his take on this report is that it “is meant to make life difficult for the current [U.S.] government.”

The political opposition in Turkey has been quick to criticize Erdoğan and his party. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), says he has “difficulty understanding this government’s mentality. This government failed in the Uludere case. It murdered 34 citizens.” Deputy CHP Chair, Sezgin Tanrikulu, says that the “reason why the government is keeping quiet now is that it wants to avoid political responsibility.”

Truck carrying bodies of Roboski massacre victims

Mayor Fehmi Yaman in Uludere charged that the attack was part of a series of government efforts to intimidate the local population and called it deliberate. “The orders for this attack came from the very top level and they will do everything to protect themselves,” said Yaman. Families of the victims said that the “Turkish army knew very well that the villagers, who are poor and uneducated, have used the route to smuggle for generations” and they could not have mistaken them for PKK militants.

Etyen Mahçupyan, columnist for Today’s Zaman, wrote in January that soldiers knew the caravan was coming, stopped them to gather them all in one spot, and then the soldiers “lit a flare to illuminate the region and allow warplanes to savagely shell the region and tear the smugglers’ bodies to pieces.” In fact, says Mahçupyan, it is “very hard to justify the argument that this incident was really an accident; there are a whole host of signs that suggest the massacre was deliberate.”

The questions surrounding this attack on innocent civilians should be raising alarm bells in Washington and elsewhere. U.S.-Turkish military cooperation is in need of review to better control how Ankara uses the information is receives from its American counterparts. There should also be a review of military aid to Ankara and strict controls on its use. Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said he wouldn’t “comment on intelligence-sharing with our Turkish allies” and instead remarked that the U.S. has “an enduring relationship with Turkey.” Perhaps someone at the NATO Summit in Chicago should take the opportunity to raise the issue with President Gül and lay out plans of how this relationship will endure.

In the end, we can only hope that the coverage continues, for whatever the reasons, and that the 34 Kurdish victims of this botched airstrike become a catalyst for policy change in the region. If that happens, their unfortunate deaths won’t be for naught.

(follow Christian Sinclair on Twitter: @sinclair_c)

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.

36 seats in Parliament. Now what?

Labour, Freedom and Democracy Block

It has been a week since the 12 June elections in Turkey. The dust is settling and a clearer picture is emerging of what’s in store for the new parliament once the next legislative session begins around 01 October. High on the agenda is the drafting of a new, civilian constitution. The current constitution, put into effect in 1982 on the heels of the 1980 military coup, is based on a Kemalist notion of Turkish national identity, which is homogeneous and leaves no room for ethnic and religious difference. It is a ‘straightjacket’ on Turkish democracy, limiting the rights of individuals and privileging the state at the expense of the citizen.

The swearing in ceremony for MPs in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly of Turkey (Turkish Parliament, or simply Meclis in Turkish) will be 24 June. The day before the swearing-in, a newly formed commission from the pro-Kurdish Labour, Democracy and Freedom Block (in Kurdish, Bloka Ked, Azadî û Demokrasî, or KAD), which won 36 seats, will issue a declaration. The statement will clarify the KAD-Block’s standing in the parliament, the way, methods and strategies to be followed for a solution to problems. The KAD-Block was created and supported by the BDP, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

On Sunday evening last, as results were still coming in, Turkish PM Erdoğan said that the nation had not only given his party a mandate to govern, but to draft a new constitution: ‘The people gave us a message to build the new constitution through consensus and negotiation.’ He said that the AKP would discuss the new constitution with opposition parties and parties outside of parliament, in ‘all-encompassing’ negotiations.

With their 36 seats, the KAD-Block will play an important role in any future constitutional debate, and the Kurdish question looks set to move to the top of the political agenda. Said Sebahat Tuncel, Kurdish MP from Istanbul in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Erdoğan ‘now faces a major domestic challenge,’ referring to the writing up a new, inclusive constitution. She also said that the 36-MP strong block ‘will be the most effective check on the AKP’s destructive policy’ of repressing the Kurds.

However, some are expressing caution regarding the KAD-Block’s calls for specific demands. Taha Akyol, for example, a political analyst with CNNTürk and Milliyet newspaper, said that while the BDP has become ‘a force that cannot be ignored’ it ‘must know the limits of its demands.’ While Akyol is a Turkish nationalist, this will certainly be an issue in the constitutional negotiations, as the AKP is not going to want to be seen as caving in to Kurdish demands. After all, Erdoğan ran a very nationalist campaign to garner MHP (far-right, nationalist party) votes. But, after the election, Erdoğan apologised to his rivals for his actions and language during the campaigns. Erdoğan’s words were probably meant more to take votes from the MHP party to keep them from reaching the 10% election threshold. But still, it will be hard now to backpedal.

Ahmet Türk, newly elected KAD MP from Mêrdîn said that the ‘new constitution must be based on democratic autonomy, which must be a topic in the open for discussion and we will work towards this. If these demands are ignored by the state, the people will create their own method to establish the system they are aiming for.’

Leyla Zana speaks in Diyarbakır

Leyla Zana, elected from Diyarbakır, speaking in Kurdish to an audience of tens of thousands at a rally last Monday said, ‘The Kurds will be a partner of this state.’ While the logical assumption is that MPs elected from the pro-Kurdish KAD Block will be partners (the AKP needs partners), it is not clear to what extent Kurds will be included in the process of re-writing the country’s constitution.

Murat Yetkin, writing for Hürriyet Daily News, says the ‘CHP (centre-left, People’s Republican Party) is always a safer partner for the AKP for major political projects like amending or rewriting the constitution, in order to secure a consensus acceptable for a wider base in society. The BDP, which is focused more on Kurdish rights, might be an easier partner for Erdoğan at first sight, but such a partnership, which might exclude both the CHP and the MHP, might cause new fault lines in Turkey’s political arena. It may cast a shadow, says Yetkin, over the new constitution, creating doubts whether the government sort of bargained for the presidential system in return for group – not individual – rights for Kurds.’

Some of the conditions the Kurds will expect in any new constitution, says KAD MP-elect Hasip Kaplan from southeastern province of Şırnak, are the implementation of democratic autonomy, the use of mother tongues and the granting of constitutional citizenship.’ He also said that it should contain ‘expansion of freedom of thought in its largest sense.’

These are ‘demands’ that may be outside of the ‘limits’ referred to by Akyol. But what then is left? How can the Kurds accept anything less than full equality as Kurdish citizens of the Turkish Republic? In a meeting of Turkish intellectuals, journalists and lawyers earlier last week, Osman Can, one of the lawyers present, called on political parties to abandon what they earlier termed ‘red lines’ and said parties must decide to talk without preconditions. One of the ‘reddest’ of lines is that of mother-tongue education in Kurdish. It is a flashpoint in the debate on Kurdish rights and a key theme of the Kurd’s political agenda. Abandoning red lines may be easier said than done.

Nabi Avcı, a newly elected AKP deputy from Eskişehir and former senior media advisor to Erdoğan, said at a meeting with members of the foreign press that the ‘Kurdish issue’ is also on the government’s agenda ‘not as a problem but as a broader issue.’ He also said that ‘it is not right to highlight any priorities at the moment.’

Some of these comments may not bode well for Kurdish expectations. Ahmet Türk says that ‘the election results mean that the Kurdish people are united and our demands are going to be on the national agenda. If not, there will be more pain and more problems in the future’ and that if their ‘demands are ignored by the state, the people will create their own method to establish the system they are aiming for.’

The threat of ‘more pain and more problems in the future’ that Türk mentioned is real, according to the deputy head of the ruling AKP in Diyarbakır, Mohammed Akar. He says that if there is disappointment, the whole idea of integration will end. Separation and conflict will come to the fore. Akar added that ‘the danger that is lying ahead is a nightmare.’

The AKP may have received the largest percentage of popular votes at 49.95%, but the fact is that in 2002 they had 363 seats in the Meclis, in 2007 they had 341 seats, and now, in 2011, the AKP will seat only 326 parliamentarians. From 2007 to 2011, the overall percentage of votes increased by 3.3%, but their percentage of seats in the Meclis will decline by 4.5%.

Erdoğan’s AKP had been vying for a 2/3’s super majority (367 seats), which would have allowed it to rewrite the constitution single-handedly with no input from any other parties. A 3/5’s majority (330 seats) would have offered the AKP the option of drafting a new constitution on its own and then submitting it to a public referendum. They are only four seats from a 3/5’s majority and could try and look for defectors to make up the gap.

click to enlarge

However, the Kurds are the ones who are really gaining ground. In 2007 they captured 20 seats in parliament. This time round the pro-Kurdish KAD-Block managed to get 6.85% of the national vote, which resulted in 36 of its candidates getting elected. Not all of them are Kurdish, which was a strategy the BDP had to broaden its support base. And 11 of the 36 are women. A list of the 36 and election percentages can be found here.

In an attempt to draw support from religious voters, an alliance was formed with two other pro-Kurdish parties—the Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP) and the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR). Former KADEP leader Şerafettin Elçi was picked as a candidate in Diyarbakır.

Political Science at Istanbul University, Dr Nuray Mert, noted that this was ‘a very successful outcome for the Block but it goes unnoticed that the Block didn’t participate in the elections as a political party. Therefore, the elections already began unfair[ly].’

In Diyarbakır, seven KAD-Block candidates got 429,000 votes and won six seats, whereas the AKP received five seats with only 231,000 votes. Without the 10 percent threshold, says Henri Barkey, KAD-Block candidates would have probably gotten as many as 50 seats. In other words, BDP is stronger than the number of seats it will control in the new parliament.

The Kurdish political group may be stronger than the number of seats, but for now they have to work with their strength in parliament. A change in the 10% election threshold will also be a necessary component in any new constitution to ensure more inclusivity in the future.

For now there is a major battle ahead as political camps scramble to put together their bargaining points and prepare for October. It will be interesting to see too what happens between now and the opening of that new, legislative session.

Since the election, the Turkish government has shut down Kurdish media outlets and has continued its arrest waves of Kurdish politicians. More than 100 have been detained in the past week alone. In spite of this, a PKK ceasefire has been extended to see what will happen with reforms and constitutional change. If the repressive methods continue and Erdoğan fails to take an historic step in partnering with the Kurds in the drafting of the new constitution, all hell will break loose.

Speaking of the failure of the AKP to garner its wished-for super-majority and rewrite the constitution by itself, former US Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson, said that ‘[g]iven concerns about Erdoğan’s megalomania and authoritarian tendencies that have gained traction in Turkey in recent months, the outcome is good for Turkish democracy.’ Let’s hope it is good too for Kurdish aspirations.

Zana says government fears a solution

Leyla Zana in Silvan

Thousands of Kurds were in the streets today protesting against the ongoing military and political operations carried out by police and army. Close to 900 people have been detained since Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) barred a group of parliamentary candidates from running in the upcoming election. The YSK reversed its decision a few days later.

Leyla Zana, independent candidate for parliament, spoke to a huge crowd in her hometown of Silvan. Zana is running as a candidate from Diyarbakır in the ‘Labour, Democracy and Freedom’ bloc, an umbrella group for independent candidates in the 12 June general elections. Many are supported by the BDP.

Said Zana to the crowd, ‘This country is witnessing very dark forces trying all they can to prevent the Kurdish Question from being solved. These forces do not want peace, do not want this question to be resolved. Indeed they fear a solution.’

Zana also said of Turkish PM Erdoğan, ‘You are not bigger than these people.’

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.

Leyla Zana turns 50 on Tuesday.

Watch video:

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.’

Kurds in the middle: Turkish-Syrian relations

Turkish PM Erdoğan and Syrian President al-Assad

The demonstrations spreading through Syria will surely have implications beyond Syria’s borders. Syria’s neighbour to the north, Turkey, seems particularly concerned that the unrest may spread too far and affect growing Turco-Syrian relations. Relations—political, economic, and otherwise—have been improving at a brisk pace over the past decade. But relations between the two neighbours have not always been so friendly.

The decade of the 1990s, the last decade in Syria of the safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK), saw severely strained relations between Damascus and Ankara; almost leading to war. Syria tolerated the PKK’s presence, if not tacitly embracing it. Damascus had little, if any, weight in political or other battles against Ankara and used the PKK as a proxy against its enemy to the north, all the while pretending the PKK were not even present on its soil.

While Damascus allowed the PKK militants to operate and train in Syria, there were red lines. The major limitation was that they leave the domestic Kurdish population alone. There was, however, great interest amongst the Syrian Kurds in the goings-on of the PKK and other groups operating within Syrian borders.

Due to the numerous restrictions placed on Kurdish cultural expression in Syria, Kurds there had always celebrated their culture in private. The PKK’s presence in the country managed to pull the Syrian Kurds from a private sphere existence to a more public one, which mostly happened through PKK-organised Newroz and other cultural celebrations in Kurdish areas of the country.

In 1998 PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced from Syria and the PKK moved out leaving a vacuum in its wake. Syrian Kurds had been politicised to some extent by the PKK’s presence and, after the group’s departure, Kurdish political parties stepped in to fill the void.

Around that same time Turkey and Syria signed a security agreement (the Adana Agreement), paving the way for improved relations between the two countries. And since that time these Kurdish political parties, though illegal and not well coordinated amongst themselves, have attempted to speak for the Kurds of Syria.

Watching al-Assad address the nation on Wednesday.

As mentioned previously, relations between Turkey and Syria have continued to improve, particularly since the AKP’s rise to power in Turkey in 2002, paving the way for increased trade and military cooperation. However, one issue continues to concern Ankara. That issue, as before, is the Kurds and the 800km common border between the two countries. So worried are the Turks that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish National Intelligence (MIT), was dispatched this past Sunday to Damascus to express Ankara’s concerns about the spreading social unrest in Syria.

Two years ago the two countries formed a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HSCC) and held their first joint military exercises just under a year ago, in April 2010.

Turkish PM Erdoğan and Syrian President al-Assad have been speaking frequently on the phone since protests started spreading from Dera’a in the southwest corner of Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has conferred with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Mouallem to offer Turkey’s assistance in the event of a reform process towards a democratic regime.

A major concern for Turkey is the Kurdish minority in Syria. Some 10% of the population, they face severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses by the Ba’athist regime. The state of emergency that has been in force since 1963, gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge.

Why does Turkey fear the collapse of the Assad regime? The downfall of the current Ba’athist regime could perhaps lead to some autonomy for Syria’s Kurds. Turkey ultimately fears a strengthening of Pan-Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. Ankara sees Damascus as a key player in helping restrain Kurdish ambitions and subsequently see its help in the reform process as a way to keep al-Assad in power.

Linguistic mosaic along the Syrian-Turkish border (click for larger image)

While Turkey has eased—if ever so imperceptibly and begrudingly—its restrictions on Kurdish expressions of culture and language in the past several years, Damascus still does not acknowledge the Kurds’ existence and brutally represses any attempts on their part to promote ethnic equality.

Turkish PM Erdoğan, speaking on Monday to journalists, confirmed he had urged the Syrian president over the weekend to adopt a conciliatory spirit with his people.

‘We advised Mr Assad that responding to the people’s years-old demands positively, with a reformist approach, would help Syria overcome the problems more easily,’ said Erdoğan.

Whether responding to Erdoğan’s advice or trying to pre-empt the Kurds from joining the wave of protests across the country, al-Assad has begun discussing reform. In an announcement today, SANA (the official state news agency) said the president had formed a panel to study granting citizenship to stateless Kurds living in Syria.

In 1962 the Syrian government carried out a special census in the al-Hasakeh province which stripped almost 150,000 Kurds of their citizenship. These Kurds and their descendents have been stateless for decades now, prohibited from public sector employment, banned from travelling abroad, and unable to marry Syrian citizens. Today the stateless Kurds number some 300,000.

The announcement said that the census committee would complete its work before 15 April, at which time al-Assad would issue a decree based on the committee’s decision.

On Tuesday al-Assad accepted the resignation of his 32-member cabinet. One news agency has reported that a member of the Syrian Kurdish community will be offered a high-level position in the new cabinet. This would be more of a symbolic gesture aimed at appeasing Kurdish discontent in the country.

Kurds, for the most part, have so far stayed out of the current protests.


Karayilan: Syria must recognise Kurdish identity. Kurdish Info, 30 March 2011.

Couvas, Jacques. Why Erdoğan can’t let Assad down. IPS, 29 March 2011.

Karam, Zeina. Syrian president orders study on emergency laws. Bellingham Herald (AP), 31 March 2011.

Stateless Kurds in Syria. Report No. 5. KurdWatch, March 2010. (opens as .pdf)

Sinclair, Christian. Silencing of Kurdish Voices in Syria. Paper presented at ‘New Voices, New Media, New Agendas?’ Workshop sponsored by Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, February 2011.

More than one million signatures for mother-tongue education in Kurdish

1,100,000 signatures have been collected within the framework of the campaign launched two months ago by Democratic Society Congress (DTK) to demand ‘education in mother tongue’ and were presented to the Assembly Petition Committee of the Turkish Parliament on Thursday.

The petition, which began two months ago after the call of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) to demand ‘education in Kurdish mother language’, has ended. While more than 1,100,000 signatures were collected within the framework of the campaign, it was underscored that the number of signatures would have exceeded 10 million if the campaign had not been carried out symbolically. Signatures were collected to present to Speaker’s Office, UNESCO, the UN and the EU.

About 10 packets of paper full of signatures collected under the campaign with the support of institutions such as HAK-PAR (Rights and Liberties Party), KADEP (Participatory Democracy Party), İHD (Turkish Human Rights Association), MAZLUMDER (Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People), Eğitim Sen (Education and Science Worker’s Union) and MKM (Mesopotamia Cultural Centre) were taken from the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) general building to the Assembly. Nearly a million signatures collected with same demands will also be conveyed to UNESCO, UN and EU officials. According to information received, some of the signatures will be sent to the UN Representative in Ankara on Monday while the other two institutions are expected to respond to the appointment request.

DTK Co-chair Aysel Tuğluk and BDP Group Vice-President Ayla Akat Ada, representatives of organisations supporting the campaign, held a meeting in the Assembly. Speaking at the meeting, Tuğluk remarked that 1,100,000 signatures were collected and they had reached their goal in a very short time by turning the campaign into a common struggle. Tuğluk also pointed out that the problem of mother-tongue education can not be handled separately from the Kurdish problem and added; ‘The Kurdish issue is a multi-dimensional problem of rights and freedoms. This hundred-year problem can be solved through the extension of rights and freedoms which passes through dialogue and reconciliation.’

'I will rip your tongue out, Minister!'

The Mother-tongue education in Kurdish debate is a contentious one; a red line in politics that no major political party wishes to cross.

Earlier in the week, Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu and MHP deputy Ahmet Duran Bulut got into a heated debate over education in a native language.

Bulut, accusing the Education Minister of supporting mother-tongue education, said: ‘The education minister is talking about two native tongues. I will rip your tongue out, minister.’

Çubukçu responded in a written statement saying that she was ‘appalled by his threats, and find[s] it absolutely troubling for humanity, especially given that I have not made any statements expressing support toward education in two languages. I have always been clear on the matter. Turkey’s official language is Turkish, and education is in Turkish.’

In September, PM Erdoğan spoke on the issue saying, ‘You can open courses in your mother tongue. But if you expect us to allow official education in the mother tongue, we will not be in for that. The official language in Turkey is Turkish.’

For more on the issue of mother-tongue education in Kurdish, read Kurdistan Commentary’s essay ‘Mother tongue education in Kurdish’ from December 2009.

12 September Constitutional Referendum: What’s your vote?

12 September Constitutional Referendum: What’s your vote?

In one month from today, on the 30th anniversary of the 12 September military coup, Turkey will vote in a referendum on a constitutional amendments package. The package, developed by the ruling AK Party and approved by parliament in mid-May, will reform 26 articles from the 1982 constitution. The AKP is pushing hard for votes, saying the amendment package will strengthen democracy and boost the chances of Turkey’s EU accession. Critics say, among other objections, that the referendum vote is merely an AKP device to gain control of the judiciary. And critics abound. Former MHP member Yaşar Okuyan, who recently joined the CHP, was imprisoned after the coup. He sees the current reforms as a ploy to purge judges and prosecutors who almost succeeded in having the AKP banned in 2007 for having Islamist ties.

A recent survey shows there are slightly more who say they will vote against the referendum than for it. The Sonar research company’s survey reveals that 50.8% of respondents said they would vote ‘no,’ whereas 49.2% said they would vote ‘yes”. The survey, apparently, did not ask about a boycott.

It seems that opposition parties in parliament are more likely to vote against the measures or completely boycott the process. Parties outside of parliament are showing more support.

For example, the pro-Kurdish BDP with 19 seats in parliament, is firmly in favour of an out-and-out boycott, saying they ‘will return the ballot boxes empty.’ The other two pro-Kurdish parties, who are not represented in parliament, the Rights and Liberties Party (HAKPAR), and the Participatory Democracy Party (KADEP), are both urging ‘yes’ votes.

Why the insistence on an all-out boycott? One reason, says BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, was the recent riots by Turkish ultra-nationalists against Kurdish civilians in some areas of the country. Demirtaş says that Prime Minister Erdoğan is responsible for the ‘lack of security’ in these areas and that the ‘AKP harbours ill intentions and supports coup-plotters.’

BDP co-chair Gülten Kışanak said last week in Urfa that a ‘yes’ vote is a vote that supports ‘patching up’ the existing coup constitution, and that voting ‘no’ is to legitimise it.

Boycott rally in Istanbul

On 01 August, thousands of Kurds staged a rally in the streets of Istanbul to voice their disappointment with the planned reforms. Kurdish MP Sebahat Tuncel highlighted the need for amendments to the current constitution, but complained at the rally that the ‘reform proposal was created because of the Kurdish identity issue, but unfortunately the proposed reform package does not take a single step toward solving the Kurds’ problem.’

On the other end, HAKPAR leader, Bayram Bozyel, feels that the BDP is ‘distorting’ the issue based on the fact that there is no article in the amendments package that directly relates to the Kurds. ‘We know that democracy in Turkey is directly related to every problem, including the Kurdish problem. When we say democracy, it doesn’t mean mentioning the Kurdish problem specifically,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan is planning to send letters to millions of youth across the country. More than 3 million youths have reached voting age since 2007 and they will soon be received a ‘please vote yes’ letter from the AKP. The AK Party will also hold fast-breaking dinners throughout the month of Ramadan as an opportunity to ask for support from the public.

The opposition parties, namely the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are carrying out a ‘no’ campaign against the reforms.

There is also a referendum group calling itself ‘Yetmez ama evet’ (Not enough, but yes) whose supporters come from various segments of society, including intellectuals, artists and journalists.

The main revisions to the constitution would make the military more accountable to civilian courts as well as give parliament a say in appointing judges. It would also allow public servants the right to collective agreement and the right to strike, and end immunity from prosecution for 1980 military coup leaders. For more details on the specifics of the 26 articles to be amended, see Factbox: Turkey’s constitutional reform.

So what’s your vote?

Shameful! Turkish Embassy refuses letter from Archbishop Tutu

Turkish Embassy, London


A letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu was to be personally delivered by Rev Matthew Esau, Vice-Chair of KHRAG and a delegation of UK supporters to the Turkish Embassy in London, today, Tuesday 10 August 2010 at 11.00 am. However despite prior arrangement the delegation were met on the doorstep by a police officer who not only refused entry to the Embassy but informed them he was under strict instructions not to allow the delivery of any letters.

Rev Esau was accompanied by supporters of a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish Question, Siobhain McDonagh MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Jonathan Fryer, lecturer and Liberal Democrat politician, Frances Webber, human rights lawyer and Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London.

In a letter dated July 2010, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and the Chair of ‘The Elders’ called on the Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the political head of Turkey, to use his office and his influence to bring a lasting end to the conflict in Turkey with regards to the Kurdish question.

From left to right: Estella Schmid, Peace in Kurdistan; Frances Webber, human rights lawyer; Siobhain McDonagh MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP; Rev Esau, KHRAG; Ken Livingstone; Jonathan Fryer, lecturer and Liberal Democrat politician; Mustafa Topkaya; Feryat Demirci,Hackney Councillor. Photo credit: Kamuran Samar

The Archbishop complimented Mr. Erdogan and his government for the support given to the people of Palestine, saying “We regard your pronouncements as the right ones and a declaration that matters of conflicts between nations can be settled only through peaceful negotiated talks amongst apposing groups.”

The Chair of ‘The Elders’ pointed out however that he was “concerned at the escalation of the conflict between the Turkish and the Kurdish peoples in which innocent young people, from both sides, are losing their lives.” Tutu continued, “We know from experience that no-one can emerge as the victor in such a conflict.” Like the situation in the Middle East, where “Peaceful negotiations are the only lasting solution to their problems, we are firmly of the view that the Kurdish question can likewise be resolved through peaceful negotiations with the genuine leadership of the Kurdish people.”

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu offered the help of the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group (KHRAG) “a human rights organisation in South Africa (who are) prepared to help in the initiative and (who will) assist in mobilising international support for the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question in your country.”

Rev Essau spoke of his shock saying:

I am deeply disappointed in the behaviour of the Turkish Embassy here in London. We informed them over a week ago that we wished to deliver a letter from Archbishop Tutu. We spoke to the Personal Assistant of the Ambassador and she assured us that even if the Ambassador could not meet with me she would be able to take the letter from me. On arriving at the Embassy this morning I spoke to the policeman who was standing in front of the door, he said he was under strict instructions not to let anybody come in or to accept any letters. This behaviour is unbecoming towards representatives of Archbishop Tutu and we take it as a slap in the face to the Chair of the Elders, Archbishop Tutu. We will protest this behaviour to the highest level in the Turkish government. Not even during apartheid when we were fighting the racists and those who were oppressing black people in South Africa did our Embassy here in London or anywhere else in the world refuse to receive letters. The letter from Archbishop Tutu is a magnanimous request to Prime Minister Erdogan to find a way of settling the Kurdish Question and if this is the way in which the Turkish government approaches the offer of help from Archbishop Tutu then we are very saddened but we will not stop our efforts to try and engage the Turkish government.

Jeremy Corbyn MP who was part of the delegation echoed Rev Esau’s concerns saying: “It is high time that there were proper talks between the Turkish government and the political representatives of the Kurdish people. It is extraordinary that the Turkish Ambassador refused to even open the door to the personal representative of Archbishop Tutu. So we will send the letter and continue the campaign for justice.”

**Download letter from Archbishop Tutu here. (.pdf)**

KHRAG is supported in the UK by Peace in Kurdistan; For more information contact Estella – 020 7586 5892 / estella24@tiscali.co.uk or Rachel: 020 7272 4131.

Peace in Kurdistan Campaign: Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish question
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Patrons: Lord Avebury, Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Alyn Smith MEP, Hywel Williams MP, Elfyn Llwyd MP, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, Edward Albee, Mark Thomas, Bairbre de Brún MEP

About the CHP’s decision to create a commission to study the Kurdish issue

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, newly-elected head of the CHP

The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP), the staunchly secular, centre-left party headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (since 22 May 2010), has announced that it has formed a seven-member commission to study the Kurdish issue. The CHP said the commission would visit the Kurdish regions of Turkey to ‘form an official party stance on a range of issues involving the Kurdish problem.’ The announcement has been cautiously welcomed by experts, and is a major shift in policy from the CHP position under the former leadership of Deniz Baykal. The CHP under Baykal had ‘fallen into a rejectionist rut coloured with a streak of nationalism, standing for little beyond being against whatever the AKP was for, even if that included liberalising reforms.’

It seems now the CHP has begun its political machinations to position itself for next year’s elections. This move to form a commission says that the CHP believes the current party in power, the AKP, has failed in its efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue. Kılıçdaroğlu is a seasoned public servant and politician, and also an Alevi Kurd. He is most certainly trying to re-brand the party to garner Kurdish votes. Erdoğan has dismissed Kılıçdaroğlu’s popular reformist image saying he is nothing more than a ‘product of media headlines.’

Sezgin Tanrıkulu, former chair of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, said the CHP’s decision to review its Kurdish policy is an important step by itself. ‘The CHP is an important actor [in working] for a solution. Their discourse was an exclusionary one and they paid for it in the elections. Their policy must change and they should act bravely.’

Former CHP leader Deniz Baykal had said that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Kurdish Opening threatened ‘to destroy and split Turkey.’ He said that granting the right of education in languages other than Turkish would lead to division. In a parliamentary session last November, Baykal and his CHP MPs walked out after heated words with Erdoğan about the proposed reforms.

The CHP at that time announced some red lines, which they said may not be crossed. One of the CHP’s red lines was that there would be no education in the Kurdish language. However, twenty-one years ago, the CHP prepared a Kurdish report in which it suggested that the obstacles to using the Kurdish language in every field, including education, should be removed and that Kurdish language departments should be established at universities. The report was later taken off the party’s website and the CHP’s leadership shied way from supporting government efforts advocating similar resolutions. What place will education in Kurdish have in the CHP’s new report? Public education in Kurdish is currently forbidden in Turkey and has long been a demand by the Kurds. Ahmet Türk, former head of the now-defunct pro-Kurdish DTP, said last year that ‘[w]ithout mother-tongue education, there will be no solution to ongoing problems.’

Haluk Koç, the chairman of the newly-announced commission, said the commission wants ‘to hear criticism as well as suggestions for composing a detailed policy which will be submitted to the decision-making bodies of the party. We are planning to form a policy which is not hostage to ethnicity or [religious] beliefs.’

Altan Tan: 'We can give credit to the CHP also, if their report is the right one.'

Conservative Kurdish intellectual Altan Tan is cautiously optimistic about the work of the commission. He told Today’s Zaman that the CHP’s decision is a positive step, but it is too early to pass judgment. ‘If the CHP continues to act with its fascist mentality of the 1930s, instead of adopting a contemporary social democratic approach, then nothing positive will come of this effort. When I take into consideration the CHP’s performance until now, I am not very hopeful, but even to take a decision like this is a sign of a softening in its position,’ he said.

He added that there are some people within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who have the same ‘fascist mentality,’ but despite their presence in the party, some segments of Kurdish society have still given credit to the AK Party.

Tan had said in a November 2008 interview published in Today’s Zaman that the ‘AK Party is not the same AK Party that the Kurds fell in love with. Kurds also face the dilemma of not having an alternative.’ Could the CHP be an alternative? Perhaps, as latest polls show that the CHP under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership could garner 32% of the vote. Erdoğan will certainly be ramping up his criticism of Kılıçdaroğlu and the CHP in the coming months as the elections draw closer.


Karabat, Ayşe. CHP decision to study Kurdish problem positive step, experts say. Today’s Zaman, 15 July 2010.

Toxic Blame Game Spiralling Out of Control. Kurdistan Commentary, 09 July 2010.

Schleifer, Yigal. Turkey’s ‘Gandhi’ Gets Tough with Governing Party. EurasiaNet, 27 May 2010.

Matur, Bejan. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Kurdish and Alevi identity. Today’s Zaman, 27 May 2010.

AKP’s Kurdish Initiative. Kurdistan Commentary, 15 November 2009.

Doğan, Yonca. Altan Tan: Kurds’ love affair with AK Party ending. Today’s Zaman, 18 November 2008.

Toxic blame game spiralling out of control

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has called for party leaders to meet to discuss terrorism, but the opposition parties aren’t biting. Opposition party leaders are adamantly opposed to such a gathering, saying that the office of the Turkish President should convene the meeting to discuss Turkey’s ‘mounting terrorism problem.’

No one will argue that there has been an upsurge in violence in the past few weeks, specifically since 01 June.    The arguments, rather, are centred on the origins of the violence and how to control it.  A toxic blame game is in play threatening to spiral into further uncontrolled violence, taking the country back to the dark days of the 1990s.

So who is saying what about the current situation?

Erdoğan and the AKP

Turkish PM Erdoğan

Erdoğan has a three-tiered approach for laying blame: the EU, the media, and the opposition parties.

He has been lambasting the EU of late for not offering more support in Ankara’s ‘long-running struggle against terrorism,’ saying that EU member states turn a blind eye to PKK activities there.  He wants Europeans to cut PKK financial channels, close down any organisation with PKK affiliations, and stop PKK propaganda.  The last demand is a reference to ROJ-TV, a Kurdish satellite TV station broadcasting from Denmark, long accused by Ankara of being a ‘mouthpiece’ for the PKK.

He blames the media in Turkey as well and was recently quoted as saying, ‘I beg your pardon, but unfortunately the media is intentionally or unintentionally supporting the terrorist organisation in a serious way. I am being this harsh.’

He has singled out the pro-Kurdish BDP in particular for supporting terrorism. During a recent address in the AKP’s meeting in Parliament, Erdoğan accused the BDP of supporting terrorism, saying they were ‘collaborating with the outlawed terror organisation.’  He added that those ‘who are in direct or indirect contact with the PKK are accomplices to murder.’

Despite the recent surge in violence, Beşir Atalay, Turkish Interior Minister, says the government will continue its efforts to advance the Kurdish Opening.  However, he expresses frustration at the lack of support from the US and the KRG to combat the PKK.  He says that PKK camps in the Qandil mountains ‘must be destroyed’ and that the ‘time for action is now.’

Like Erdoğan, Atalay is touchy about the media.  He said the government expects ‘the media to show sensitivity on news reports regarding terrorist acts.’  ‘The press unintentionally contributes to that propaganda.’

The Opposition Parties

Devlet Bahçeli

Firebrand Nationalist Party (MHP) Leader Devlet Bahçeli says he will not meet with the Prime Minister until Erdoğan admits that ‘he made a mistake with the (Kurdish) initiative, he escalated clashes, he aggravated terror and he led to the deaths of soldiers.’

Bahçeli has a laundry list of other demands and pre-conditions.  He wants Erdoğan to:

• clarify his relations with the PKK, the US, and the KRG;
• give up the Kurdish initiative;
• announce his commitment to Turkish identity, and give up dividing the country into pieces;
• say that he will not listen to the US and will not seek shelter in the US after every terrorist attack;

• bring Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani in line, and
• apologise to the citizens of Turkey.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) says that Erdoğan should visit the CHP first before any summit to discuss terrorism, but ‘we are waiting for him to return from his holiday.’  He also says that Erdoğan’s vagueness on the Kurdish initiatives has brought the country to the brink of division.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent comment that ‘blood cannot be cleaned with blood,’ meant, he said, ‘that you can’t solve terror on the security front alone. The fight against terror has different dimensions, including economic, social, psychological and cultural aspects.’

He also claimed that one of the most apparent weaknesses in Turkey’s fight against terror was its reliance on foreign intelligence.

Selehattin Demirtaş

BDP leader Selehattin Demirtaş says that Erdoğan’s statements accusing the BDP of ties to terrorism were a kind of ‘call’ for the top court to close the BDP.

Demirtaş is careful to distinguish the state from the current AKP government.  ‘The state is closer to the solution, but it is the AKP that congests the process.’ Even so, he says, the Kurdish Opening didn’t go far enough.

Gültan Kışanak, deputy leader BDP, stated that the AKP’s failure in its Kurdish move has led to the re-emergence of the conflict.

Kışanak said Erdoğan didn’t want to pay a price for the AKP’s Kurdish move, but instead wanted to make supporters of the initiative pay the price.

The BDP deputy leader also criticised Erdoğan for blaming external powers for the recent conflicts in an attempt to escape responsibility for those who have lost their lives recently. ‘The ruling government has so far blamed external powers to veil their failure for problems inside the country,’ Kışanak said.


Sozdar Avesta

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) holds Ankara responsible for the current situation.  Sozdar Avesta, one of the top five commanders of the PKK and the highest-ranking female member, says that instead of developing a peaceful solution, Ankara has ‘unleashed more violence’ and is pursuing a ‘policy of annihilation.’  She said the ‘Turkish government has failed to develop a peaceful solution of the Kurdish issue.’

In a recent interview describing what the military situation might look like in the months ahead, Avesta said ‘It’s going to be very hot.  Guerrilla units across Turkey have been activated. We have started a period where we are going to actively defend ourselves.’  These actions, she added, are a response to Turkish repression.

During that same interview with Avesta, another PKK member said: ‘The Turkish government saw our ceasefire as a sign of weakness and is trying to exploit that. They are preparing a total war.’

Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, said peace with Turkey was possible.  He listed several suggestions, including constitutional reform and the abolishment of anti-terror laws.  He foresees these as fundamental to any solution of the Kurdish question and says the AKP is fully responsible. Öcalan has called for a period of no conflict, but warned that if the AKP fails, then special war lobbies in the judiciary, the army, and elsewhere will take over.


Murat Karayılan

The head of the KCK (Kurdistan Democratic Confederation) Executive Council, Murat Karayılan said in an interview with Firat News Agency that the AKP is not sincere in the solution [Kurdish Opening] and is using the stances of the CHP and MHP as an excuse not to take necessary steps to a real solution.  But he feels that the AKP government and the Turkish state have no intention to make peace with the Kurdish people.

He said that the KCK is planning to announce a ‘Democratic Autonomy’ solution.  The Democratic Autonomy is a democratisation of Turkey and means ‘respecting and promoting different cultures rather than subjecting them to assimilation and genocide policies. It is recognising the right to autonomy of different cultures living within the country. It does not mean secession or establishing a new state, but enjoyment of full rights.’

If AKP does not accept democratic autonomy, then the only option left, he added, would be to ‘enter a total war period.’

What next?

Erdoğan has returned from his brief holiday.  Sanity is still on holiday.  Dangerous rhetoric frames the current situation only in terms of security and terrorism and detracts from the issues at hand.  Ordinary Kurdish citizens are left in the dust of political manipulation.

The AKP vows to press on with the Kurdish Opening, but elections are looming. Any push to continue reforms will only strengthen the hard-line opposition.  Pushing too hard will cost the party dearly in the elections.

There seems little chance of bringing the parties together to form any kind of consensus before the elections.  Given the current positions, however, consensus seems all but impossible anyway. Demirtaş, an idealist perhaps, thinks that 2010 will bring a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.  Others seem to be preparing for all-out ethnic conflict. Can the path to more conflict and bloodshed be stopped?  Can anything be done to steer the country towards Demirtaş’ hoped-for scenario?  Anything?