Kurds in Turkey Still fighting for freedom



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 member. 

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

The Turkish public is also becoming less supportive of Turkey joining the
EU. According to


, 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

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

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


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 situation. 

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.