Crackdown On Kurds Tests Limits Of Turkish Democracy


The National
November 4, 2011 Friday

Turkey has liberalised laws regulating free speech in its bid to
become a member of the European Union, but existing anti-terror laws
give law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors vast powers.

ISTANBUL // Opposition parties and intellectuals in Turkey say the
arrest of hundreds of people accused of supporting Kurdish militants
is part of a political crackdown that could undermine the hard-won
democratic achievements of recent years.

Ragip Zarakolu, the owner of a publishing house, and Busra Ersanli,
a professor of international relations, were among more than 40
suspects sent into pretrial detention by a court in Istanbul this week.

Prosecutors accuse them of supporting the Union of Kurdish Communities
(KCK), an organisation they say is steered by the Kurdistan Workers’
Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting Turkey since 1984 in a conflict
that has killed thousands.

The arrests were part of an ongoing investigation against the KCK that
started in 2009. About 500 people, among them many Kurdish politicians,
have been jailed awaiting trial, according to the interior ministry.

Prosecutors say the KCK has been trying to set up PKK-run institutions
of administration and justice in the Kurdish south-east, but critics
say the government is trying to silence Kurdish voices.

Following the arrest of Mr Zarakolu and Ms Ersanli, a group of about
700 academics, writers and other intellectuals issued a statement
saying the move was a “severe blow” to democratisation.

“The arrests are going beyond the classical law-enforcement type of
preventive action,” Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist in Istanbul
and a signatory to the statement said this week.

“They are directly targeting freedom of expression.”

Turkey has liberalised many draconian laws regulating free speech in
its bid to become a member of the European Union in recent years, but
existing anti-terror laws give law-enforcement agencies and prosecutors
vast powers to act against suspects even if there is scant evidence,
critics say.

“The arrests of Ragip Zarakolu and Busra Ersanli represent a new low
in the misuse of terrorism laws to crush freedom of expression and
association in Turkey,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at
Human Rights Watch, said.

Mr Zarakolu, the owner of the Belge publishing house, has been
prosecuted before because of books dealing with the Kurdish and the
Armenian issues. Ms Ersanli, a political scientist at Istanbul’s
Marmara University, is an adviser to the Peace and Democracy Party
(BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party. The BDP is part of a commission
drafting a new constitution for the country.

No charges have been made public but news reports say the arrests
centred on activities of the BDP Policy Academy, an institute for
training officials. Courses included lectures on the PKK’s history
and the concept of local autonomy for the Kurdish area, but also
lessons on women’s rights, according to newspaper reports.

Critics say police and prosecutors are going overboard in their effort
to prove suspects have actively supported the PKK.

The Radikal newspaper reported this week that prosecutors had asked Ms
Ersanli about arcane details of some of her notes for a seminar at the
BDP academy during their interrogation. According to the newspaper,
the professor was asked why she used the term “citizen of Turkey” in
her notes, instead of “Turkish citizen”. Erkan Kanar, the professor’s
lawyer, told the newspaper the prosecution approached his client’s
notes as if they were PKK documents.

“We are seeing the Turkish police casting the net ever wider in
the crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics,” Ms Sinclair-Webb,
the rights activist, said. “Unless there is clear evidence of people
plotting violence or providing logistical support to armed groups,
prosecutors and courts should throw these cases out.”

The BDP has said the KCK arrests amounted to “political genocide”
against Kurdish officials. But in a time of heightened tensions
following the death of 24 Turkish soldiers last month in the bloodiest
PKK attack in decades, other opposition parties found it harder to
criticise the arrests.

The Republican People’s Party, the main opposition group in parliament,
decided not to vote on a statement condemning the arrests because
some deputies said they would not sign a declaration of support for
KCK suspects because of their alleged links to the PKK.

Prof Aktar said the arrests were part of a government strategy to
solve the Kurdish conflict by force. Following the recent PKK attack,
the Turkish military staged a week-long operation in south-eastern
Turkey and northern Iraq, during which about 250 PKK fighters were
killed, according to the general staff in Ankara.

“It is largely based on law enforcement and repression,” Prof Aktar
said of the government’s approach. “What is missing is the democratic,
the political component.”