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…

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