Ousted Kurdish mayor given lengthy prison sentence on terrorism charges

DEM Party politician Mehmet Sıddık Akış

A Turkish court has handed down an almost 20-year prison sentence to a Kurdish mayor who was ousted from office earlier this week on terrorism-related charges, in a development likely to spark more protests and condemnation for being politically motivated, Turkish Minute reported.

The Hakkari 1st High Criminal Court sentenced Mehmet Sıddık Akış, the former co-mayor of Hakkari from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party), to 19 years, six months in prison on Wednesday and arrested him.

Akış, 53, who was elected with 48.9 percent of the vote in the March 31 elections, was detained in a police operation in the eastern province of Van on Monday. On the same day, the Interior Ministry announced his removal from office.

The ministry said on X on Monday that the mayor was removed due to an ongoing investigation and a separate trial on terrorism-linked charges. He was replaced by Hakkari Governor Ali Çelik.

Akış said at the 61st hearing on Wednesday that he was standing trial on politically motivated charges, that he has been involved the Kurdish political struggle for years and that he has not committed any offense.

“I have fought for peace, brotherhood, justice, equality and freedoms. I have dedicated my life to these values and will continue to do so,” said Akış.

He told the court it was thought-provoking that his trial was concluded with a conviction shortly after his election although the proceedings have been going on for years.

DEM Party supporters and officials protested the court’s decision, chanting slogans and applauding outside the courthouse.

The DEM Party said on X that it does not recognize the court’s decision, describing the trial as “absurd.” The party accused the Turkish judiciary of acting on orders from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

In Hakkari, a group of DEM Party lawmakers including party Co-chairperson Tülay Hatimoğulları staged a sit-in at the Hakkari Governor’s Office under heavy police presence following the decision. Hatimoğulları described the ruling as “null and void.”

Both the AKP and the MHP accuse the DEM Party and its predecessors of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies.

The parties deny any links to the outlawed group.

Akış’s removal also attracted criticism from the opposition parties. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) even sent a delegation to the city in support of the DEM Party.

Even nationalist İYİ (Good) Party leader Müsavat Dervişoğlu, whose party has a similar view of the DEM Party as the AKP and the MHP, criticized Akış’s removal from office without a conviction.

“If the trial hadn’t been concluded, why did you cause a commotion by appointing a trustee?” he asked at a party meeting earlier on Wednesday.

Widespread protests have taken place in Hakkari and other parts of the country as well as in parliament by DEM Party lawmakers against the mayor’s removal. The protestors confronted police officers who used pepper spray, plastic bullets and pressurized water to disperse them, leading to several injuries.

The protests have taken place despite a ban on public demonstrations, protests and marches in the province for a period of 10 days announced by the Hakkari Municipality on Monday in an apparent bid to prevent protests against the removal of the city’s mayor.

A similar ban was also announced for nine other provinces in the predominantly Kurdish southeast including Diyarbakır, Ağrı, Batman and Van, where protests are likely to spread. The bans will be in effect for four to as long as 10 days.

First mayor ousted after March 31

Although Turkey became acquainted with the removal of democratically elected Kurdish mayors from office on terrorism accusations after the local elections in 2016 and 2019, Akış is the first mayor removed from office following the March 31 elections.

There were hopes that the government would not resort to such a step this time, given the significant public support afforded DEM Party mayors in the country’s southeast in the local elections.

As a result, the removal of Akış came as a disappointment to many, leading to protests and calls on the government from various segments of society to end the controversial practice and respect the will of the Kurdish people.

The mayor’s removal came shortly after he revealed that the governor of Hakkari, Çelik, who had previously been appointed to the province as a trustee in August 2023, spent TL 29.9 million ($890,477) for the election campaign of the AKP candidate, İsmet Ölmez, in the March 31 elections from the municipality’s budget and left a debt of TL 315 million ($9.6 million).

Akış, who held a news conference with Co-mayor Tekçe on May 14, accused Çelik of involvement in irregularities and favoritism in the city’s finances, tenders and recruitment of municipal staff during his short term as a trustee.

The DEM Party’s predecessor, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), won 65 municipalities in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions in the local elections on March 31, 2019, but due to the decisions of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) in six cases and the Interior Ministry, nearly 50 mayors have been removed from office or not allowed to assume office.

The Turkish government claimed the appointment of trustees was a counterterrorism measure and that the elected mayors were funneling municipal funds to the PKK.

The mayors denied the accusations and described them as politically motivated.

In the March local elections, the DEM Party won 10 provincial municipalities in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, including the region’s largest city, Diyarbakır.

The party won back 37 of the 48 municipalities whose mayors were ousted by the government after the 2019 elections.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stepped up a crackdown on the Kurdish political movement following a failed coup in July 2016, arresting dozens of Kurdish politicians, removing democratically elected mayors and closing down Kurdish media outlets.

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