By Alin K. Gregorian
BOSTON — In the past week, the two co-leaders of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, as well as several other party members, have been arrested in Ankara. They are charged with spreading propaganda in support of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The two leaders and all the other HDP members charged vigorously deny the charges as trumped up.
Immediately in the wake of the arrests, violence erupted yet again in Diyarbakir. A car bomb went off, killing 11 and injuring scores. Later, Islamic State claimed responsibility.
The HDP party announced a partial boycott of parliament on Sunday, November 6, saying it was “halting its legislative efforts” and that its deputies would stop participating in sessions of the legislature or meetings of parliamentary commissions.
“After discussions with our parliamentary group and our central executive board, we have decided to halt our legislative efforts in light of everything that has happened,” HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen said in a statement read out in front of the party’s offices in Diyarbakir and broadcast online.
The action against the HDP has heightened concern among Western allies about the state of democracy in Turkey.
More than 110,000 officials — from soldiers and judges to teachers and journalists — have been detained or suspended since a failed military coup in July, in what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s critics say is a crackdown on all forms of dissent.
“I don’t care if they call me dictator or whatever else, it goes in one ear, out the other. What matters is what my people call me,” Erdogan said in a speech at an Istanbul university, where he was receiving an honorary doctorate.
The United States expressed deep concern, while Germany and Denmark summoned Turkish diplomats over the Kurdish arrests. European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the actions “call into question the basis for the sustainable relationship between the EU and Turkey.”
Armenian groups around the world have been watching the events unfolding in Turkey with horror.
The European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy (EAFJD) issued a statement this week condemning “in the strongest terms the illegal and targeted arrest” of the deputies.
Nihat Akdogan, one of 15 members of the pro-Kurdish party to be detained in recent days, was taken into custody in his southeastern constituency.
The center-left opposition party CHP Monday joined in the criticism of the latest crackdown, saying “arresting lawmakers ahead of the judicial process and before a final verdict is unconstitutional.”
HDP itself issued a statement on November 4, signed by Hisyar Ozsoy, Deputy for Bingol, with the headline “The End of Democracy in Turkey.”
The statement appears in its entirety below:
“Last night the purge of President Erdogan against our party has reached another peak: our Co-Chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, along with 11 further Members of Parliament of our party have been detained across Turkey last night. More arrests are to be expected. The goal of these measures is to shut down the third largest party in parliament. This is a dark day not only for our party but also for all of Turkey and the region as it means the end of democracy in Turkey.
“Ever since our party reached a historic victory during the national elections of June 7, 2015, where we succeeded to enter parliament despite the undemocratic 10-percent threshold, President Erdogan has singled out our party as the main target of his authoritarian policies. The reason is our principled opposition against his goal to introduce a presidential system in Turkey. Our seats in parliament are the biggest obstacles to the necessary constitutional changes. Thus, he simply ordered new elections in November 2015. Despite a series of violent assaults by “unknown perpetrators” on our party members and infrastructure, we managed once again to surpass the threshold on November 5, 2015 and won 59 seats in Parliament. Since he could not re-order elections another time, President Erdogan initiated the lifting of the immunity of our MPs in May 2016. As he could not prevent us from entering Parliament, he now orders us into prison.
“Thousands of members, executives, elected mayors and city council members affiliated with the HDP and/or our sister party DBP have already been sent to prison on groundless charges since our electoral victory in June 2015. Yet the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency has been the welcome opportunity for President Erdogan to eliminate all opposition. There is no freedom of expression and no freedom of press, no academic freedom, and no fair and independent judicial system any more. With government decrees gaining the power of law, over 170 media outlets critical of Erdogan have been banned. More than 130 journalists are in prison, including world-renowned authors and intellectuals. Most recently, two Kurdish news agencies and several Kurdish dailies were closed down and the chief-editor, columnists and journalists of the daily Cumhuriyet have been detained. More than 80,000 people have been detained since July 15, and about half of them are in prison now.
“On November 3, Ms. Gülten Kisanak and Mr. Firat Anli, elected co-mayors of Diyarbakir from our party, were arrested and sent to prison. A district governor from Ankara was appointed to run the municipality. With this, the number of Kurdish municipalities run by bureaucrats appointed by the central government increased to 28. About 30 democratically elected Kurdish mayors are now in prison, and about 70 of them were dismissed by the central government.
“We strongly condemn the detainment of our Co-Chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, as well our Members of Parliament Nihat Akdogan, Nursel Aydogan, Idris Baluken, Leyla Birlik, Ferhat Encü, Selma Irmak, Sirri Süreyya Önder, Ziya Pir, Imam Tascier, Gülser Yildirim, Abdullah Zeydan and demand their immediate release. The manufactured charges against them and all other party members must be dropped.
“History has shown over and over again that any power based on brute force is outlived by the struggle for justice and freedom. We will not surrender to these dictatorial policies and call upon our friends around the world to stand in solidarity in our struggle to prevent Erdogan to steer the country into a civil war and further despotism.”
Garo Paylan Speaks
Garo Paylan, the Armenian HDP deputy, Tweeted on November 4, “We live in the year 1915, it’s April 24! Do not allow those fascists to burn our country, our youth again.”
For many Armenians in the US who had just heard him speak, his fate is one that hits close to home. For now, Paylan is free.
According to Philippe Raffi Kalfayan, a top international law expert and attorney in France, while Paylan is still free, he realizes that danger may lurk just around the corner.
“I have know him since May 2013, and I have met him regularly since then,” he said. “He knows that whether he speaks or not, his days of liberty are counted, and therefore it is better to speak. He will probably be on the list of the next MPs to be arrested. I don’t want to think of another tragic scenario, although there are enough crazy ultranationalists” for other bad scenarios, he said.
Paylan in October had filed a criminal complaint against President Erdogan concerning his disregard of anti-Armenian chants shouted during the president’s speech in Trabzon on October 15. Paylan directed the complaint to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office, suggesting Erdogan had violated Turkish Penal Law which bans “inciting hatred and hostility among peoples and denigration.”
Kalfayan said that Paylan, in this case, has the law on his side. “The law is indeed in favor of his suit [article 216 of the penal code]. The authorities will be embarrassed to justify the tolerance of hate speech against Armenians in courts. Further, if the courts don’t respect the law and the precedent of the Hrant Dink case at the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights], then the latter will for sure again condemn Turkey.”
He noted that “Europe and the US have to come out of their lethargy. If not,” he warned, the hope they had created would disappear.
Kalfayan, who has been involved with the France-based International Federation for Human Rights, with the French acronym FIDH, added that neither he nor the group are involved with the cases yet. If they get involved at any point, it would be as observers, he aded.
At this point, he suggested, there is little pressure on Erdogan. “Erdogan does not care about NGOs’ pressures; he even does not care about European Parliament and Commission statements.”
Part of the reason for this impunity is that “Turkey has repositioned itself in the regional game by making friends again with Russia. If Europe and the US put too much pressure, they [Turkey] will turn to Russia.”
He warned: “History repeats itself: pressured on its human rights record but also threatened geopolitically, scapegoats may well be the ‘autonomist’ Kurds as well as the remaining Armenians. Just make a parallel with what happened in the early 20th century: dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (loss of big territories) and bad human rights records (Abdul Hamid massacres).”
There seems to be chaos in Turkey for anyone straying from the government line. Kalfayan noted, “Most of my Turkish friends are in despair. Some have lost their jobs; others, the youngest, want to leave the country because they don’t want to suffer any more this extreme nationalism and ‘Islamism’ and the lack of tolerance toward secular people.”
Kalfayan was hopeful that the arrested HDP leaders and other party members would be treated well, though they might be detained for lengthy periods.
The rights of Armenians and the gains that they had made in the past couple of years seem to have eroded quickly. The Church Foundation had renovated Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir extensively by raising millions internationally. This past spring, the church, as well as all other churches in the province, were seized by the government as “protection.”
One of the people who has been an integral campaigner for the renovation of the church is Raffi Bedrosyan, a Toronto-based musician and engineer.
Contacted this week, he said, “As a result of the fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish guerillas in eastern and southeastern Turkey, more than a million people are displaced, among them many hidden Islamicized Armenians. Most of the towns and villages in these regions are bombed and burned down, followed by complete razing and demolition of damaged buildings. The recently reconstructed Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir (Dikranagerd) is relatively unscathed structurally, with only broken windows and a large hole in one of the exterior walls. But inside, the Turkish security forces have used it as an army base, desecrated the church, burning some of the pews as firewood, with garbage and smell of urine everywhere. The attached gift and souvenir shop is destroyed. Several stores and houses in the adjacent block to the church, which were originally owned by the church and only recently returned to church ownership, have now been demolished by the government, along with many of the historic narrow streets and buildings leading to the church. Now the church stands in the middle of a vast open area. But worst of all, in March 2016, the government passed legislation, expropriating the church and all of the properties belonging to the church. The church is now closed to public. The Armenian church foundation has taken the expropriation to Turkish courts, to be followed by cases at the European Court of Human Rights, in case of unsuccessful outcome at the Turkish courts.”
It is not only the churches there that are under attack, Bedrosyan said.
“Most of the population, including many hidden Islamicized Armenians have had to leave their houses and flee to safer regions away from the war zones. There have been several hidden Armenians killed, wounded, arrested and jailed as Kurdish resistance sympathizers, especially teachers, lawyers and journalists. The elected Kurdish municipal leaders in 28 cities and towns in the region have been forced to resign their posts, jailed and arrested for “supporting terrorist organizations,” including the mayors of Diyarbakir,” he said.
Bedrosyan expressed his frustration with the mood in Turkey. “Following the failed coup attempt against President Erdogan in July 2016, dictatorial powers and state of emergency in Turkey have resulted in silencing of all opposition, media, intellectuals and opinion makers. The situation is bad and still getting worse in Turkey, especially in the southeastern regions, with fighting within Turkey and across the border within Iraq and Syria. Although Turkey has pledged to fight against ISIS, it seems that their main fight is against Kurdish forces within Turkey and across the border within Iraq and Syria, even though the coalition against ISIS under US leadership includes Kurdish forces.”
He concluded, “Naturally, all my efforts as the founder of Project Rebirth with the objective to help the hidden Islamicized Armenians find their Armenian roots, culture and language by organizing Armenian-language classes in places like Diyarbakir or Dersim, as well as trips for them to Armenia are now on hold. As people are now in a survival mode, efforts are now channeled toward arranging lawyers for people who are arrested and jailed, or helping them relocate away from the war zones.”
(Reports from the Guardian, BBC News and Deutsche Welle were used in this story.)