Turkey’s Controversial COVID-19 Amnesty: Is it Salahuddin Demirtas or the Kurdish People Who Were Arrested?
As I write this article, I look back at my conservative upbringing and how my views of Kurdish citizens until my college years were based on a set of prejudices the ruling authority had imposed on the Turkish people.
In the years that followed college, I was able to establish good friendships with Kurdish people – solid ongoing relationships. What I cannot accept are the crimes the Kurdish people in the southeast started facing in the late 80’s and right through into the 1990s.
Meaning, I did not understand the animosity toward the Kurds at the time.
Well, who are the Kurds and why does Turkey insist on fighting them—smearing their reputation at any chance they get?
In a report titled “Between Peace and War: To Understand the Kurdish World in Turkey and the Middle East” the former head of the Turkish Historical Society, Matin Hulaju, says that the presence of the Kurds in Anatolia is a “precedent for the Turks.”
Dr. Serhun Al, the author of the report, a political Science and International Relations Professor at the Izmir Economic University, said there are nearly 30 million Kurds in the Middle East, 14.7% of them live in Turkey—according to data compiled by prestigious institutions and individuals in the country.
He pointed out that the Kurds, like the Armenians, were present in Turkey before us, meaning before the Turks.
Analyzing the situation in present time, one must look into the war crimes the Turkish military committed starting back in 1984 when I was a child growing up. They depopulated and burnt an estimated 3000 villages to eradicate the Kurdistan Workers Party, a militant Kurdish opposition group.
According to Human Rights Watch not only were an estimated 3000 Kurdish villages destroyed but at least 378,000 Kurds were displaced at the time.
The numbers got worse and worse and so did the war crimes. The Humanitarian Law Project put the number of Kurdish villages ultimately destroyed at over 4000 and confirms that 18,000 Kurds were executed by the Turkish government—crimes that led to the ultimate displacement of up to 3,000,000 people dispersed globally today.
Yes, a large portion of the millions of Kurds living in the evacuated villages had to migrate to the west. The number of Kurds began to increase rapidly in the provinces where the Turks lived extensively. Over time, the questions were not as to why the villages were burned, or why people were displaced and killed, but rather why did the number of Kurds in the cities suddenly increase extensively?
The Turkish government started in 2013 to intensify its efforts to resolve its conflict with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—negotiations that resulted into what seemed like a fragile and symbolic two-year ceasefire.
The aggressive talks were taking place as the upheaval in neighboring Syria intensified and as ISISI rose to power. The Syrian regime at the time withdrew from three Kurdish enclaves mostly dominated by Kurdish militias who had been fighting for survival against a powerful Islamic State.
The Kurdish militias in Syria were dominated by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey did not trust much. Despite the distrust during the peace negotiations Erdogan hosted PYD leaders in Turkey hoping their powerful grip in some Syrian areas could help overthrow his nemesis, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. As the PYD won support from the United States, its People Protection Unit (YPG) gradually became the most effective ground-fighting power against ISIS—a reality Turkish president Erdogan considered a threat as the PYD received military support from the US.
During this time, Turkey’s domestic Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), stood up against Erdogan’s political repression through a young and charismatic young leader, Salahuddin Demirtas, whose popularity began to threaten the political ambitions of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Tragically, Erdogan began labeling the Kurds as enemies of the state once again in 2014—a rooted rhetoric brought back to life on most Turkish state-sponsored media outlets.
The answer to his abrupt action could be that Salahuddin Demirtas, who has been a member of parliament since 2007 and the co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party from 2014 to 2018 went on the offensive and publically said:
“We will not let you be president under this presidential system.”
He was arrested in November 2016 and is currently being tried on nearly 35 baseless terror-related charges.
Ultimately, the Turkish-PKK peace talks died out due to the ongoing bloody geopolitical shifts dominating our news headlines and led Turkey to once again take a hardline approach against the Kurds inside Turkey and in Syria.
Demirtas was the presidential candidate of the HDP in the 2014 presidential campaign coming in third place with 9.77% of the vote. The HDP executive board also fielded Demirtas as their candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. He came in third place while running his campaign from prison.
This is what actually happened.
The HDP and its president Salahuddin Demirtas succeeded in overcoming the 10% electoral threshold, and prevented the Justice and Development Party from forming a single government for the first time after the 2015 elections.
This is a historic achievement for the Kurdish party and Demirtas was the first Kurdish leader to gain the genuine sympathy of the Turks. As for Erdogan, he got what he wanted and managed to convert to the presidential system two years after Salahuddin Demirtas was sent to prison.
Demirtas discusses all of Turkey’s general problems, not just the issues of the Kurds. He adopts a political discourse and relies more on leftism and liberalism than on Kurdish nationalism. He has given a signal that he will be a challenging crisis for Erdogan in the upcoming election.
This was what happened, and Demirtas became the first Kurdish politician to take his Kurdish party to the Turkish parliament in 2015.
This meant that he sounded the alarm for Erdogan, which prompted the latter to declare a comprehensive war against the Kurds under the pretext of fighting terrorism in 2015.
In late July 2015, warring between the Kurds and the Turkish government erupted again following a failed two and a half year-long attempt at establishing peace and resolving the long-running conflict.
This reality indeed prompted the leaders of the Justice and Development Party’s government, which will do anything to cling on power to embark on punishing Salahuddin Demirtas and all the Kurds he represents. Demirtas remains in Edrine prison, sharing a cell for the past four years with Abdullah Zidan, the parliament member of the HDP party in Hakkari state.
I once had hope, years back in 2003 when the Justice and Development Party came to power under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
I said just like others, that the Erdogan government can solve the Kurdish problem—a withering hope indeed.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, which sees itself as “the defender of the rights of all the oppressed,” has received significant support from the Kurds.
According to Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party a group that represents the Islamist political government – the Kurdish problem was not a subjective or a terrorist problem. It was one that emerged as a result of ratifying erroneous state policies under the leadership of the Republican People’s Party—a challenge that may have been solved peacefully.
But after Erdogan realized that he could lose the elections in 2014, he breached this peaceful approach and invested in national votes, as the political Islamists and the Erdogan government agreed that a precondition to remain in power is to create and fight an enemy.
The Justice and Development Party’s government began to transform into an authoritarian government, and even became a dictatorial one by adding the “nationalist state” discourse to his “Populist-Islamic” one which completely smeared the party’s mandate and content.
Turkey’s COVID-19 cases have exceeded 155,000—the hardest-hit country in the Middle East. As the Holy month of Ramadan came to an end, the death toll from the virus in the country reached up to 4,308 according Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca
With the spread of the virus, discussion of the prisoners’ situation began and hope for clemency emerged.
Many applauded Erdogan when the Turkish parliament adopted a bill last month to free nearly 90,000 thousand inmates to curb the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. However, the shock came when the media reported those who have been imprisoned on terror-related charges, journalists and political dissidents will be exempted—horrific news for people like Demiritas, lawyers, politicians, artists, judges, and dozens of journalists who are falsely jailed on fabricated terror charges.
The government kept their word alright, and instead released a number of known thieves, murderers, drug traffickers and mafia bosses accused of rape!
To pressure the Turkish government to release prisoners facing an increasing threat from the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons, sixteen organizations led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom initiated a petition on March 25th calling on Turkey to avoid discriminatory exemption, respect the fundamental human rights of all prisoners and ensure that all measures necessary to protect them from all kinds of harms including the COVID-19 pandemic are immediately taken. Prisoners who are elderly, sick, disabled and with children should be released from prisons immediately.
Organizations on the list such as the International Observatory of Human Rights, Arrested Lawyers, European Federation of Journalists, and Lawyer Rights Watch Canada called on Turkey to take all steps in accordance with the Turkish Constitution and abide by the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The UN Human Rights Committee has determined that “the State party by arresting and detaining individuals takes the responsibility to care for their life.” The Committee clearly states that it is, “incumbent on States to ensure the right of life of detainees, and not incumbent on the latter to request protection.”
Families of prisoners like Basak, the wife of Demirtas who had married him in 2002, worried about the spread of the CORONA-19 virus in dingy overcrowded prison cells. She lobbied that those accused of political crimes must be included among those freed under the amnesty law. She had met with European Union Rapporteur Kati Piri in 2018 to advocate for her husband’s release.
In this regard, serious campaigns were launched calling on the government to release artists, academics, journalists, politicians, members of the Gulen movement and non-violent prisoners like Demirtas.
Basak stated on BBC once that she represented her husband’s voice outside the prison walls during the 2018 Turkish presidential elections when he competed as the HDP candidate. In June 2018, he relayed a campaign speech through her phone from prison.
Most recently, Basak has posted a video clip on her personal account on social media after her husband was transferred to the hospital due to his illness. Basak explained that the last time she met her husband Demirtas in prison was on 14th March and she was deeply concerned about his potential exposure to the pandemic.
In her message, Basak said: “The last time we managed to see each other face to face was on 14th March. I spoke to Salahuddin on the phone on Friday, and he was in a good psychological condition and he seemed stronger. But I cannot talk about his physical health, as medical problems persist, and the heart problems he suffers continue to persist, and now he suffers from high blood pressure. His heart problems and respiratory diseases are still present. Therefore, I cannot say that Salahuddin’s health is fine. The bad prison conditions have added to his illnesses. Currently, everyone in Turkey and all over the world is concerned. We are really concerned and the safest place now in Turkey is home, and all places outside home are dangerous. And in prisons the concern is further exacerbated.”
“In fact, prisoners were released in several countries. Several days ago, the UN also sent warnings about the release of prisoners. Unfortunately, as we see, these warnings were not taken into account in Turkey.”
According to the Turkish minister of Justice, three prisoners had died, and 17 prisoners and 79 prison staff have tested positive so far.
Basaq worried about her husband’s health asks a question that must be answered by the Turkish government.
“I really wonder. How will the Turkish minister of justice be held responsible in the event that any person is contaminated or dies by CORONA-19 in any of the Turkish prisons?”
Our request in this regard is clear, and a legal amendment has been made on this subject. This law should include all politicians.”
The fears of families of prisoners has become a reality, a nightmare when news broke that another prisoner died of COVID-19 in the infamous Silviri prison on or around May 24th. Four inmates have lost their lives to the pandemic and 82 remain infected according to official figures.
The goal of Erdogan’s regime is not only to leave Salahuddin Demirtas to die in prison, but also to eliminate the Kurds’ hope and leave them to die as well, but I think Erdogan will not succeed.
“Concerned segments of Turks, Kurds, leftists, Alevis, Armenians, and international non-governmental human rights organizations will not remain silent and they have already begun to champion shared values that protect universal human principles and the release of my husband will bring a brighter future,” Basak commented with hope.
At a time of a killer pandemic, Erdogan should understand that the amnesty of Salahuddin and the hundreds of unjustly jailed political prisoners and journalists will come as a message that Turkey is a state based on plurality, justice, and the democracy that he strives to promote at each chance he gets—and this is one of those opportunities.