Kurds in Turkey - Still fighting
By Eva Kuras
The Toronto Sun reported in June 2004,
"Tens of thousands of Kurds wept and danced" when four
parliamentarians were freed from prison in Turkey that month.
The most well known of the parliamentarians, Leyla Zana, was the
first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish Parliament. At
her swearing-in ceremony, she wore a headband with Kurdish colors
while saying in Kurdish, "I shall struggle so that the Kurdish
and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework."
That same week, limited use of the Kurdish language in state television
broadcasts was permitted by the Turkish government.
In 2002 Turkey had formally lifted the
15-year state of emergency in the country's Southeast and lessened
the power of the military, bringing it under greater civilian
control. The military-dominated National Security Council had
traditionally held great power in Turkey so its reform constituted
"a quiet revolution," according to a Financial Times
editorial. Likewise the abolishing of incommunicado detention,
along with the implementation of the right to legal council from
the first moment of detention, were the main reasons for a decline
in torture in the post-civil war years (1984-1999). The reforms
that have taken place are a result of strong pressure applied
by the European Union (EU) regarding Turkey's bid to become a
Since the end of the civil war in 1999,
the situation of the Kurds in Turkey has been mixed, as some reforms
were more cosmetic than substantial. Events in the past year are
of particular concern, as a new wave of violence between the Turkish
army and PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) coincides with Kurdish
impatience with the pace of the reform process.
The European Union agreed to begin official
accession negotiations with Turkey in late 2004. Many Kurdish
rights activists, although generally supportive of Turkey's eventually
joining the EU, still feel that this decision was made too hastily.
Kerim Yeldiz (executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project)
writes in his book The Kurds in Turkey: EU Accession and Human
Rights that the European Commission Report of 2004 was "a
decisive factor in the resolution to open accession negotiations"
and had glossed over the severity of the repression of Kurds.
"It cannot be stressed enough," he explains, "that
the situation of the Kurds in the Southeast is not just a result
of a series of unhappy coincidences, which have left them marginalized
and impoverished; Turkey has pursued a deliberately anti-Kurdish
agenda for decades, comprehensively subjugating them, persecuting
any expression of Kurdish identity and fighting an armed conflict
against them." He believes that a real solution, one not
discussed in the EU report, would include both political dialogue
between Turks and Kurds and a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
As the European public's fear of incorporating
Turkey increases, the prospect of accession is fading. A European
Commission poll published in July 2006 found that nearly one in
two Europeans is against Turkey joining the EU. An article published
on www.worldpress.org noted "the less spoken fear of allowing
a country with a large Muslim population into the European Union."
The article further noted that, "If admitted, Turkey will
be the second-largest country after Germany in the European Union
and, under the current arrangements, will enjoy significant political
power in the Union's institutions."
The Turkish public is also becoming less
supportive of Turkey joining the EU. According to Newsweek, polls
showed 70 percent of Turks supported joining the EU 2 years ago,
while only 43 percent did in August 2006. When the push to join
the EU lessens on both sides, the incentive for Turkey to maintain
and deepen its reforms disappears. In fact recent events show
much cause for alarm, particularly the recent escalation in violence
between the KONGRA-GEL and the Turkish Army.
As part of an attempt to shift from violent
to political means of addressing Kurdish issues, the PKK changed
its name to KADEK (Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan)
in 2002, then KONGRAGEL (Kurdistan People's Congress) in 2003.
KONGRA-GEL has been abducting police, local officials, and even
civilians, propagating bomb attacks in urban centers, and has
clashed repeatedly with Turkish security forces since calling
off its ceasefire in 2004. According to the Kurdish Human Rights
Project, at least 550 people were killed on both sides of the
violence in 2005. The PKK and its successor organizations have
said repeatedly since first declaring a ceasefire in 1999 (after
the capture of their leader Abdullah Öcalan) that it would
put down its arms if a general amnesty was declared for its fighters
and greater Kurdish rights given. This was rejected by the Turkish
government, which stated that the rebels should surrender themselves
to the police instead. On October 2, 2006, KONGRA-GEL again declared
a ceasefire. However, in response, Turkey's new military chief
General Buyukanit stated he would continue to fight "until
not a single armed terrorist is left."
The current situation of the Kurds in
the Southeast was highlighted in March/April 2006 when thousands
of Kurds rioted in several cities during and after the funeral
ceremonies for 14 PKK fighters. As a result, according to the
Belfast Telegraph, the government sent 5,000 troops to the Southeast
backed by U.S.-made Sikorsky and Cobra helicopters. Police used
live fire to put down the riots, resulting in the deaths of 14
civilians (3 of whom were children) with hundreds injured. The
district mayor of Diyarbakir said at the time that the riots were
"the result of the political and social problems in the region
not being resolved," such as poverty, high unemployment,
and the large number of displaced families living in squalor.
Anger has also been exacerbated by the
government's handling of the bombing of a bookstore in Semdinli
in November 2005. The bombing was only one of many that had occurred
in recent months in the province, but this time local civilians
chased and caught the perpetrators. Two of the perpetrators were
members of the police intelligence service.
The military, along with political and
judicial authorities, prevented any serious investigation into
the incident. When the director of the Police Security Intelligence
Bureau and the prosecutor of the case suggested possible military
involvement in the bombing, they were removed from their positions.
Within this context, recent human rights
gains are in danger of deterioration. As some commentators have
pointed out, next year's presidential and general elections in
Turkey may be influencing the president to act even harsher, as
Turkey's national hardliners loudly call for more repression.
There have, however, been many improvements that people living
in the Southeast were quick to emphasize to a 2005 KHRP (Kurdish
Human Rights Project) mission investigating the current situation.
For instance, there was only one national
organization focusing on human rights in the Southeast in 2004
while there are now ten new human rights organizations based in
Diyarbakir, as it has become easier to found new organizations
as a result of reforms (i.e., less paperwork). Human rights organizations
and lawyers are no longer subject to assassinations, torture,
or warrant-less raids of their premises as was rampant during
the years of the civil war. Persistent police surveillance and
sometimes verbal or written death threats do still occur, though.
Further the Human Rights Association faced 62 investigations at
the time of KHRP's mission, 12 of which resulted in prosecutions.
According to the Human Rights Association, state investigations
against individuals have been markedly on the rise in recent years:
from 101 in 2002 to 1,199 in 2003 to 2,642 in 2004.
Courts are now investigating allegations
of torture as well, according to the 2005 U.S. State Department
Report on Human Rights Practices. However, they rarely issue convictions.
When there are convictions, punishment is minimal. The report
also noted that the methods of torture have become less severe
and often take place outside police detention centers so that
police can avoid detection. Instead of electric shocks, beating
on soles of feet and genitalia, or rape, today police use methods
that leave less physical signs, such as slapping, exposure to
cold, stripping and blindfolding, etc. Amnesty International's
Report for 2005 noted that while there were less reports of torture
of those convicted for political offences, those arrested for
ordinary crimes like theft or public disorder were particularly
at risk of ill-treatment (perhaps because they're less likely
to report it).
Many human rights defenders, still under
regular police and judicial harassment, fear that this is a dangerous
time in the Southeast, as some in the military feel their power
waning and are striking back (hence the Semdinli bombings, for
instance). In April 2006 Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathon
Sugden was arrested by the Turkish police and deported from the
country. Sugden's visit was to study the current situation of
internally displaced people in Turkey. In a press release, KHRP
described this as a "dangerous signal to all other human
rights defenders and organizations in the country."
Members of political parties espousing
Kurdish rights, although no longer subject to torture and assassination,
continue to face harassment, are often accused of being allied
with the guerrillas. Though the party is legal, Kurdish Democratic
Society (DTP) meetings are regularly broken up and members are
often detained and arrested by police. On July 30 police raided
a DTP meeting and detained nearly 140 people, saying they were
really meeting on behalf of the PKK. (The local branch leader
explained to the press that the meeting took place in order to
set up a city council.) Prime Minister Erdogan has said repeatedly
that he would not meet with DTP leaders to work on a long-term
solution to the Kurdish issue until they publicly condemned the
PKK as terrorists. The 10 percent election threshold, much higher
than in any other European country, effectively disfranchises
the entire Kurdish Southeast from parliamentary representation.
The DTP, for instance, won 45 percent of the votes there in the
last elections, but only 5 percent of the national vote so the
party could claim no parliamentary representation.
People continue to face trial on charges
of "insulting Turkishness" or "inciting people
to hatred." As of July 29, 47 writers faced prosecution in
Turkey, according to the Turkish Publishers' Association, and
284 books were confiscated in the years 2000-2005, according to
the KHRP. Many newspapers and radio stations still face temporary
or permanent closure for saying the wrong thing and many face
continual harassment. The Turkish-language, pro-Kurdish daily
newspaper Yeniden Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda Again)
had court proceedings issued against 304 of its 425 most recent
editions. The editor of the paper pointed out to the KHRP mission
that when the State Security Courts were abolished in July 2004,
cases against his paper continued in the newly-named Specialized
High Criminal Court.
The government is slow to address some
of the deep underlying problems in the Kurdish Southeast, such
as the severe problems of displacement, poverty, unemployment,
and discrimination. A Human Rights Watch Report described the
"near wilderness, punctuated with piles of stones where their
homes once stood," which awaits those villagers who attempt
to return. As of the end of last year, three million people remained
internally displaced within Turkey. Even with cultural rights,
there is still much work to be done. While some broadcasting in
Kurdish is allowed, severe restrictions are in place concerning
the frequency and content of these broadcasts. The teaching of
Kurdish language has finally been allowed in private schools,
although with restrictions as to frequency and content. In August
2005 all the private schools that had recently opened were forced
to shut down due to financial problems.
The repression of the Kurds in Turkey
goes back to the founding of the state. In his book The Kurds:
A People in Search of their Homeland, Kevin McKiernan describes
how after World War I Turkey was "feasted upon by the victorious
Allies, carved up and humiliated," thus propelling the Young
Turks' movement for national independence. The state was finally
formed under Atatürk in 1923, who exploited and greatly encouraged
the intense nationalist feelings of the time to build his autocracy.
Under his program of "Turkification," the only official
ethnicity of the new state was Turks; no other ethnicity was recognized
(as is still the case today). Almost immediately repression of
Turkey's Kurdish population began, as Kurdish language, culture,
and organizations were repressed.
McKiernan goes on to describe how the
Kurds rebelled against these changes in the 1920s and 1930s and
how in response the state burned hundreds of villages to the ground
and deported thousands of Kurds to western districts of Turkey.
By the 1930s the military established control of Kurdish areas
and the government legalized the evacuation of non-Turkish speaking
peoples to Turkish-speaking areas. Kurdish villages were given
Turkish names and the word "Kurdistan" was removed from
history books and publications. It was in Dersim that the fiercest
Kurdish resistance to these changes took place. By 1936 (the same
year that the military governor of Dersim announced that the Kurdish
people did not exist as a race, designating them "Mountain
Turks" instead) the town was completely surrounded by the
50,000 soldiers of the Turkish army. The military occupation of
Dersim continued until the 1950s.
The U.S. government first began giving
military aid to Turkey in 1946 to counter Soviet influence in
the Middle East during the post-WWII era. But substantial support
really began after a military coup in 1980 (an article in the
Economist at the time said the armed forces "acted as they
had to") when the U.S. signed a military agreement with Turkey.
The U.S. agreed to help modernize Turkish armed forces in exchange
for the use of Turkey's military bases, which bordered Iran and
the USSR. After the coup, the situation of the Kurds worsened,
as the military gained greater influence and a civil state of
emergency was declared in the Southeast in 1987. The civil war
between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK that began in 1984
and ended in 1999, left about 37,000 dead, 3,000 Kurdish villages
destroyed, and possibly 2 million Kurds displaced. The United
States funded 80 percent of Turkey's arms during these years.
The Kurdish Human Rights Project in its
Impact Report for 2005 described the current situation in these
terms: "In Turkey, the situation has considerably improved
from when we started our work there back in 1992-a time when villages
were routinely being burned and evacuated by security forces and
thousands of Kurds were killed or simply disappeared. It is still
shocking to remember the killings of young newspaper boys, in
reprisal simply for delivering Kurdish-language newspapers."
They also note, however, that "institutions guaranteeing
human rights, minority rights, and democracy are not yet secure"
and describe their "grave concern" over the worsening
As the situation deteriorates, the U.S.
continues to supply arms to Turkey. A World Policy Institute Special
Report published in 2005, reviewing U.S. military aid and arms
transfers abroad, stated that Turkey is the third largest recipient
of U.S. military aid, behind Israel and Egypt. An agreement is
expected between Turkey and Lockheed Martin for the purchase of
30 advanced F-16 fighter jets, as a stop-gap solution until it
completes its $10 billion program to buy nearly 100 new-generation
fighters, Turkey's largest defense procurement project in history.
All the more reason for us to keep a close eye on what these weapons
are being used for.
Eva Kuras is a writer based in Krakow,
Poland currently studying Polish language and literature.
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