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The Hidden War in Turkey

Grim and disturbing events are taking place in Turkey, where a large-scale, and under-reported, war is being fought against the Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country. Turkey is in a deep financial crisis, and there are persistent rumors of a military coup. Tourist sites have been bombed by Kurdish guerrillas, and hundreds of prominent Kurds have been assassinated in the past year by unidentified assailants. The war also helps to explain why, in the local elections on March 27, for the first time since Kemal Ataturk established a secular Turkish republic in 1923, an Islamic fundamentalist party succeeded in electing mayors of Ankara, Istanbul, and some twenty other cities. Turkish society has been deeply divided by the war and by the extreme measures the government has been taking against opposition groups, including the arrest of Kurdish members of parliament shortly before the March elections.

On March 2, the Turkish Grand National Assembly by a show of hands voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of seven Kurdish deputies who had been elected to the parliament in 1991, enabling the government to charge them with crimes against the state, which are punishable by death. On March 17, after fifteen days of interrogation in an Ankara jail, six of the seven—five men and one woman—were formally arrested and charged, under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, with “threatening the territorial integrity of the state.” They remain in prison while the Ankara State Security Court prepares for a trial that will begin sometime after the middle of June.

Only one of the six has been charged with criminal acts: harboring and seeking medical attention for a wounded member of the outlawed Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), the radical Kurdish separatist group that has been carrying on fierce guerrilla warfare in ten southeastern Turkish provinces since 1984. The rest, it appears, will be tried only for “crimes” of speech and association, for speaking against Turkey at meetings in foreign countries, and for calling for the recognition of Kurdish rights. “I will use all legal means to punish these people,” the chief prosecutor, Mr. Nusret Demiral, told me when I met with him in Ankara in April.1 Mr. Demiral will demand capital punishment for all of the deputies, claiming “they are members of a terrorist organization. Their speeches endanger free speech.”

I could not get permission from Turkish officials to visit the Kurdish deputies in prison, but I talked to several of the two hundred lawyers, both Turkish and Kurdish, who have volunteered to defend them. These lawyers all claim that improper and illegal procedures were used against the deputies. It is no accident, they believe, that the deputies were charged ten days before the local elections were held in March. With many Turkish voters increasingly disturbed by the human and economic costs of the war against the Kurds, the government, in arresting the deputies, was demonstrating its toughness toward Kurdish activists. At a closed meeting of the True Path Party, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller proposed the plan to remove the deputies’ immunity—a violation of Article 83 of the 1982 Turkish Constitution, which states that “political party groups in the Grand National Assembly…shall not hold discussions or take decisions regarding parliamentary immunity.” The accused deputies were barely given an opportunity to defend themselves in parliament; some of them were arrested before they had a chance to reply to all of the charges against them. While they were being held in jail, their conversations with their lawyers were monitored by the police. Moreover, the records of their interrogation have been classified as secret, and have not been made available to the defense.

Even before the parliament voted to lift their immunity, the chief prosecutor ordered the police to surround the parliament building, as if the deputies were criminals who would try to escape. Police officers with walkie-talkies patrolled the corridors while the debate was under way. Two of the deputies were arrested as they were leaving the building; one of them argued with the police and TV cameras caught him being roughed up and pushed into a waiting car. The five remaining deputies barricaded themselves in their offices for two days before giving themselves up to the police.

The arrested deputies were among the seventeen Kurds from southeastern Turkey who were elected to parliament in October 1991, during a brief period when it seemed possible that Turkey might at last have a government committed to democratic, humanitarian values. The 1991 elections resulted in the defeat of Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party which, after coming to power in 1983, had continued many of the repressive practices of the previous military dictatorship. The two large traditional parties—the right-of-center True Path Party of Suleyman Demirel and the left-of-center Social Democratic Peoples Party (SHP) of Erdal Inonu—then formed a coalition that brought back Mr. Demirel, who had been toppled by the military in its 1980 coup, for his seventh term as prime minister, a position that was taken over in 1993 by Ms. Ciller when Demirel was elected president by the parliament.

When Demirel became prime minister in 1991, he promised there would be “transparent government” and an end to police torture. He also promised to deal with “the Kurdish reality,” and to respond to the grievances of the twelve million Kurds in Turkey, who make up about one fifth of the population. Most of the Kurds live in great poverty in the mountain villages in the neglected and under-developed southeastern provinces. They have high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, lack medical or other services, and they are not allowed to speak Kurdish when talking to officials or to have any political or cultural institutions of their own.

When elected Mr. Demirel appointed a Kurd as the country’s first minister of human rights, and said he would restore Kurdish cultural rights. He promised to end the detested “village guard” system in the southeast, under which local people are forced to take up arms to support the military in its battle with the PKK, whose forces, variously estimated to number between 5,000 and 20,000, make use of bases in Northern Iraq and Syria.2

Demirel’s promises came to nothing. The fighting in the southeast grew worse. The government blamed the PKK, which it believes will settle for nothing less than a separate independent Kurdish state. Since it emerged in southeastern Turkey in 1984, the PKK has not only battled the Turkish army but has committed countless atrocities against Kurdish civilians who cast their lot with the military. PKK violence has also spread to western Turkey, and recently tourist sites have been bombed, discouraging many foreigners this spring from visiting Turkey. The PKK has claimed responsibility for twenty-two explosions in Istanbul since January, including one that recently killed two tourists in the Covered Bazaar.

But the military has also contributed to escalating the war. Given a free hand by the government, it is combatting PKK violence by indiscriminately arresting and mistreating Kurdish civilians in southeastern Turkey. Kurdish civilians are caught between the two warring parties, forced to take sides and risk retribution, or to flee from their homes. A Turkish newspaper has published the names of 874 villages and hamlets in the southeast which it claims the army has “cleansed” of their residents, burning them to the ground.3

The army admits it is moving people from small villages to larger ones “to protect them from the PKK,” but it claims that it is the PKK which has burned the villages. “This is not ethnic cleansing,” a Turkish human rights worker told me. “It is human cleansing. The villages are not repopulated, they are destroyed, and they don’t care where the people go.” Diyarbakir, the largest city and the unofficial capital of the southeast, has reportedly tripled in size, and hundreds of refugees have fled also to Adana, Mersin, Gaziantep, and other cities, where they are living in shantytowns.

At the same time, mysterious anti-Kurdish death squads, operating with impunity despite the heavy presence of soldiers and police, have been responsible for the assassinations of hundreds of prominent Kurdish doctors, lawyers, writers, human rights activists, and political leaders, and for thirteen disappearances in the southeast since 1993. During the past two years, for example, sixteen journalists were murdered, mainly in the southeast; other journalists were arrested and tortured, and some have been charged with subversion and imprisoned. Offices of Kurdish civil and political organizations have been bombed, not only in the southeast but throughout the country.

The government’s 1991 promises of human rights reforms have been suspended, because, it says, of the “unrest” in the southeast. The police continue to torture people in special anti-terrorist centers, and twenty-one deaths in detention were reported in 1993.

The Kurdish deputies under arrest ran for office in 1991 on the slate of the Social Democratic People’s Party, the junior partner in the resulting coalition government. Once in parliament, however, they asserted their Kurdish identity at every opportunity, and later formed their own Kurdish party, the Democracy Party (DEP). This required considerable audacity in a country where the government, until recently, denied the very existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks,” and outlawed any public use of the Kurdish language and customs. Only during the past few years have government officials reluctantly been willing to acknowledge that the Kurds actually exist—they were forced to do so, in part by the growing war with the PKK, but mainly because of the mass exodus of Iraqi Kurds into Turkey during the Gulf War and the unprecedented world attention that was suddenly given their plight.

There are 20 to 25 million Kurds in the world, mostly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, while a small number live in the former Soviet Union. They have never had a country of their own.4 Their hopes for a united Kurdistan, whose territory would include some of the world’s richest oil fields, have been destroyed time and again. Powerful countries with an interest in the region have continued to play one group of Kurds against another and to provoke warfare among them, as happened during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran and Iraq each encouraged the Kurdish people in the enemy country to oppose their own government. (Saddam Hussein’s use of chemicals in the town of Halabja was widely viewed as retribution for the collusion between the Iraqi Kurds and the government of Iran.)

Under the Demirel government people are no longer sent to prison for saying that there are Kurds in Turkey, as they were in the 1980s, but Kurds are still not permitted to speak Kurdish in court or other official places, and they risk arrest if they sing Kurdish songs. Turkish authorities continue to say, “We are all Turks here.” They defend themselves against charges of repression and discrimination by pointing to the many people of Kurdish origins who have become prominent in Turkey, including the late president, Mr. Ozal. As a Turkish friend once explained to me: “You can say softly that you are of Kurdish origins, but if you shout ‘I am a Kurd!’ you go to prison.”

  1. 1

    I went to Turkey in April on behalf of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, formerly Helsinki Watch.

  2. 2

    The Turkish government has always tried to minimize the number of PKK guerrillas. When I visited the southeast in 1987, estimates of PKK fighters ranged from 200 to 1,500. The PKK, which was then regularly engaged in violent attacks against the local population, appeared to have little support. In recent years, however, the PKK has modified its tactics toward civilians while the Turkish army has become increasingly harsh. As a result, support for the PKK appears to be growing along with the number of PKK fighters.

  3. 3

    The Turkish Daily News, February 9, 1994.

  4. 4

    See my article “Turkey’s Nonpeople,” in The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1988.

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