25 May 2023 Edition
We must stand with the Kurdish people in their struggle
Chris Hazzard visited Istanbul earlier this year as a participant in a human rights delegation to observe the current conditions of the Turkish state and investigate the impact of the political situation. He offers his thoughts on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent electoral victory.
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Nestled at the southern tip of the Bosphorus Strait on the Marmara Sea, Istanbul’s Kadiköy district attracts the artsy, eclectic Istanbullus to the Asian side of the ancient city, as tree-lined streets, galleries, and lively markets are thronged with people enjoying the world-class cuisine amidst busy social interactions.
Meandering through the streets, your senses come alive like never before; the vibrant mountains of spices, the husks of dried fruits hanging from market stalls, the rattling of the fishmonger’s cart on the cobbles, the sweet smell of almonds roasting at the side of the street, and the proliferation of political pamphlets, posters, and murals.
• Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's win will bring more oppression, persecution, and state terror
Kadiköy is unmistakably progressive; socially, culturally, and politically. Home to a large Kurdish population, it moves to a much more radical rhythm than the traditional Sultanahmet centre of Istanbul.
We were here to meet with Hasan Afshari, a Kurdish political prisoner who had served more than 30 years in Turkish prisons and been on hunger strike in the 1980s and 1990s.
Having told us of the great admiration amongst Kurdish political prisoners for the IRA and how Bobby Sands’ prison diary was shared amongst his comrades, Hasan poured us a glass of mint tea, sat deep into his wing-backed chair, and began sharing his own, personal story of resistance.
It was harrowing, barbaric, and it was frightening. His English was broken, but, through our interpreter, his message was crystal clear: “Political life in Türkiye is dangerously heavy. We need the international community to help lift it off our backs!”
For many years now, the Turkish state has descended into an authoritarian dictatorship with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responsible for a sustained attack on political parties, civil society, journalists, and progressive political movements.
Whilst the full force of this state apparatus has been most apparent by Erdoğan’s repressive criminalisation of the Kurdish people and their democratic struggle for freedom, following the 2016 attempted coup, Erdoğan has extended his war on the Kurds to all oppositional groups - including the wider Left /Green political parties; women, LGBT, academics, and lawyers.
The Turkish President has utilised a hybrid form of ‘lawfare’ where the judiciary and the penal system have been weaponised to silence political and social opponents.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Erdoğan arrested, detained, and eventually sacked 6,000 judges and prosecutors, before appointing 16,000 new prosecutors loyal to the President’s office.
Faced with this emerging opposition, the Turkish state began implementing a suite of measures as Erdoğan sought to institutionalise a totalitarian ideology at the very heart of Türkiye’s democratic institutions.
Peaceful protestors were attacked; political and social movements censored, attacked, imprisoned, their assets frozen; prisoners isolated, tortured, and left to rot.
• The human rights delegation receive first hand accounts of the political situation in Türkiye
Fundamental democratic rights have been eradicated; human rights violated; citizens dehumanised; civic space for discussion, demonstration, and social activity has been eradicated; the social contract – eviscerated.
Consequently, Turkish society is more polarised today than ever before - a deep, dangerous silence about the draconian, and often brutal policies of the state has left many unable to speak out, with women in particular suffering the fierce consequences.
In 2022, more than 340 women were murdered by men; many of the attackers went unpunished.
When Covid-19 forced the Turkish administration to release some prisoners as a precaution given the overcrowded nature of the jails, it was the rapists, murderers, and sex offenders that Erdogan set free as academics, lawyers, civil rights protestors were left to languish.
Female prisoners are also forbidden basic hygiene and sanitary products in many Turkish prisons. More than 5000 women are now imprisoned with their child - and the authorities regularly target the child as a means of intimidating the woman.
• Chris Hazard being interviewed on a human rights fact finding mission in Türkiye
Erdoğan, backed by various fundamentalist influences, has “waged war on women’s rights”. There has been a significant regression to the traditional policies of a “woman’s place is at home” and Türkiye’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention has been the most obvious illustration of this worrying trend.
Erdoğan has also continued to target trade unions, and workers more generally. He has attempted to ban a number of general strikes and has publicly stated that he wants to smash the unions and all left-wing groups.
This year, facing his toughest electoral challenge to date in what was arguably the most important election in Türkiye’s post-Ottoman history, Erdoğan inevitably launched widespread repression to undermine a free and fair electoral process.
Journalists were intimidated and harassed. Human Rights organisations were obstructed. Lawyers were arrested and framed as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Entire political parties such as the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were criminalised.
In the eastern city of Van, the entire municipal council was replaced by state-appointed trustees without investigation or justification. The Turkish Minister of the Interior repeatedly boasted on the campaign trail that he was replacing democratically elected mayors all across the Kurdish regions at Erdoğan’s direction.
With the Kurdish regions mobilising in huge numbers in an attempt to oust Erdoğan, the President had more than 140 people from Yeşil Sol Parti (Green Left) and the HDP arbitrarily detained in dawn raids throughout Türkiye.
Days later in the Kurdish stronghold of Hakkari, Turkish police stormed dozens of homes and detained more than 30 people.
Back in Kadiköy, young Kurdish workers listening to Kurdish music on the steps of their factory after their shift were attacked by the police wielding tear gas and firing shots into the air. Again, more than a dozen were detained.
Throughout the campaign, the progressive forces of the HDP & Yeşil Sol Parti reiterated that the election was not a choice between Erdoğan and his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but an opportunity for democracy, for change, for transformation.
The political map illustrates three diverging political tendencies in Türkiye. Along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts and in the largest cities, the Nation Alliance, which promotes a European democratisation of Türkiye, received the most votes. In the Kurdistan region, the Labour & Freedom Alliance, and more specifically the Green Left Party which aims to democratise Türkiye based on the freedom of the Kurds, easily won the election. In the rest of the country, the totalitarian, colonialist People’s Alliance came in first.
• At the Bosphorus Straits on the Marmara Sea
As a result, Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance won the majority in the parliament after the 14 May election. The next parliamentary term will be dominated yet again by the authoritarian presidential system - with Erdoğan and the People’s Alliance ruling the Kurds as well as the rest of Türkiye. Heavy oppression, persecution, and state terror will increase.
As the 28 May Presidential run-off demonstrated, there is no serious ideological differences between the Nation Alliance and the People’s Alliance, for the vast majority of people life will return to normal. However, for the Kurdish people, for the Green Left and the HDP, it is quite simply a matter of life and death.
The Kurdish people and their democratic institutions, supported by Kurdish diaspora and the wider international community, must organise and join forces in order to develop the struggle for freedom and democracy against Erdoğan’s emerging dictatorship.
It is obvious also that the effects of Erdoğan’s victory will not be limited to North Kurdistan. Even before the elections, the Iraqi army, following increased pressure from Erdoğan, besieged the Maxmur Refugee Camp, one of the most important centres of Kurdish patriotism. It is highly likely that attacks on Bashur and Rojava Kurdistan will now escalate as Erdoğan will look to intensify pressure on both the Iraqi and Syrian administrations.
Just as we stand with the Palestinian people against the barbaric actions of the Israeli state, we too must stand with the Kurdish people in their struggle against genocide.
To Hasan, Kadiköy, and the peoples of Kurdistan we say: Solidarity in your historic resistance for humanity, for democracy, and for freedom! Bijî Kurdistan: Jin, Jiyan, Azadî! ν
• Chris Hazard is the Sinn Féin MP for South Down.