Arrest of pro-Kurdish politicians part of Turkish government policy to criminalize opposition: Human Rights Watch

The arrest of 17 politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is part of the Turkish government’s policy of criminalizing political opposition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Friday.

Eighty-two prominent members of the HDP were detained on September 25 over their alleged role in protests in southeastern Turkey that turned violent and led to at least 37 deaths. The protests, which took place between October 6 and October 8, 2014, were a reaction to what is seen by many as the Turkish government’s tacit approval of the Kobane siege in 2014, when Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants laid a prolonged siege to a Kurdish town in northern Syria. The government has made repeated statements holding the HDP responsible for the deaths that occurred. An Ankara court arrested 17 of the detainees on Friday.

“Detaining politicians from a party that won nearly 12 percent of the vote in the 2018 general election is part of the Turkish government’s policy to criminalize political opposition,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The last few years provide ample evidence that Turkey’s courts are all too quick to do the government’s bidding, and this is the latest example.”

Most of the people accused in the current case were at the time serving members of the central executive committee of the HDP, the party’s main decision-making body. The Ankara prosecutor’s investigation accuses them of attempting to destroy the unity of the state, membership in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and carrying out activities on its behalf, spreading terrorist propaganda, inciting and praising criminal activity, and inciting murder. The PKK is an armed secessionist group listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

If convicted for attempting to destroy the unity of the state, the penalty is life in prison without parole. According to Human Rights Watch, the evidence that the prosecutor has so far presented against the 20 in the ongoing criminal investigation consists of the party’s social media postings on Twitter calling on people to join the October 2014 demonstrations. The prosecutor alleges that the postings are evidence that the party was acting under PKK orders.

The elected mayor of the eastern city of Kars, Ayhan Bilgen, was among those arrested on Friday. Following his arrest, the authorities announced that he had been replaced as mayor by the Ankara-appointed governor of the province, part of a government pattern, documented by Human Rights Watch, of replacing the democratically elected mayors from the HDP with their own unelected appointees.

“The government’s new detention orders are also a pretext for the government’s takeover of another Peoples’ Democratic Party municipality,” Porteous said. “Out of the 65 municipalities the party won in the March 31, 2019 local elections, the government has left just six small local councils HDP-controlled.”

The prosecutor has also applied to lift the parliamentary immunity of seven members of parliament from the party to enable their prosecution in the same criminal investigation.

Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, former co-chairs of the party who have been in detention since November 2016, were detained in the scope of the same criminal investigation.

The European Court of Human Rights has already found that Turkey violated several of Demirtaş’s rights and that his detention is an abuse of power by the Turkish authorities. The court concluded, “It has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the extensions of [Demirtaş’s] detention … pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

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