In the months following last July’s failed coup against him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mounted the biggest purge of public officials in a century. As has been widely reported, over 100,000 civil servants, teachers, prosecutors, judges, journalists, army officers, and police have been suspended or dismissed.
At least 52,000 are now in prison. Most of these are accused of links with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, the self-exiled Islamist who used to be Erdoğan’s ally in curbing the political power of the military in Turkey’s secular “deep state” but broke with him in 2013 and is accused of masterminding the coup.
Yet amid the crackdown, the plight of one major group has been far less in view: the country’s 14 million Kurds. In Turkey’s southeast, a half-million Kurds have been uprooted from their homes since July 2015 in Turkish military operations. According to a report issued on March 10 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, these actions have been brutal, leading to widespread human rights violations, destruction of property, and the killing of hundreds of Kurds.
Recent actions by the government have also clamped down on every sector of the Kurdish movement, including journalists, aid groups, and politicians. A particular target has been the main Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has held fifty-nine seats in Parliament since elections in November 2015 and whose support comes from other minorities and left-wing Turks as well as Kurds.
There is no basis for suspecting collaboration between Gülen and the Kurds, particularly on as sensitive an issue as planning the overthrow of the leader of Turkey. In fact, the Gülen movement has long been more in favor of using military force against the Kurds than has Erdoğan. But Erdoğan is using the post-coup clampdown as a cover for undermining the HDP, claiming the party is a security threat. Twenty-nine HDP MPs have been arrested and fourteen are still in jail, along with dozens of elected local officials accused of links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party that has been in conflict with the government for almost forty years.
The HDP and PKK are certainly both part of a broad-based Kurdish freedom movement, but the HDP cochair, Selahattin Demirtaş (now also in jail awaiting trial), has denied that his party has structural connections with the PKK or is its political arm. Nor has there been any evidence that the HDP has supported violence against the government.
In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, I recently witnessed a court appearance by Çağlar Demirel, one of the town’s HDP MPs. Accused of insulting the president and taking actions that amount to being a member of a terrorist organization, she was forced to address a three-judge panel by video link from Kandira prison near Istanbul, almost a thousand miles away. Defiant and uncontrite, she told the judges:
I’ve not been shown any evidence. I reject the accusations. There is nothing lawful about detaining MPs. We were all arrested on November 4, 2016, even though we face different charges. This shows the case is the result of political decisions.
The hearing was to decide if Demirel could be released before trial in April. The court ruled against it, the main judge declaring bizarrely that being in jail for two more months would not interfere with Demirel’s parliamentary duties.
In the public gallery Demirel’s mother, in a headscarf, wept when the judgement was announced. Demirel looked unfazed. Like most female Kurdish activists she wears her hair uncovered. Gender equality is a core principle of the movement, which has introduced the concept of parity in most public positions. The HDP is led by cochairs, a man and a woman. Kurdish towns have comayors.
Demirel belongs to a cohort of secular Kurdish women in their thirties and forties who have shown extraordinary toughness and determination. One of the most remarkable is Fatima Kasan, a spokesperson for the Free Women’s Congress, an organization that fights for equal rights and was banned by Erdoğan last November. Kasan spent twelve years in prison from the age of eighteen. She told me in February: “We’re trying to institutionalize gender equality. We struggle against the patriarchal system, bias against women, and the mechanisms which reproduce discrimination against women, since women were the first group to be colonized.” She continued,
Until the 1990s we were socialists. We saw the collapse of real [Soviet] socialism and decided it was because the emancipation of workers doesn’t mean others were also emancipated. Freedom is not equated with seizing a state structure and having a nation-state.
Read more from the source article published in The New York Review of Books in the upcoming April 20, 2017 Issue.