On 1 November 2015 Turkey’s snap election saw the AKP re-gain their majority in the National Assembly following an intense few months of state-sponsored violence and pre-election media crackdowns. With concerns over police intimidation and election fraud, the HDP called for independent observers to witness the election take place. Hundreds of volunteers from across Europe took part and Peace in Kurdistan Campaign helped to facilitate two groups from the UK, who travelled to some of the areas worst effected by the violence. A raft of reports are surfacing that question the possibility of any kind of free election given the atmosphere in which they were held, including from the European Council and the OSCE. Independent observation of polling on the day, however, more intimately reveals what voting was really like in Kurdish cities and towns – as well as the reaction to the final results.
At the end of March, journalist, historian and author David Morgan travelled to Istanbul with Father Joe Ryan, Chair of the Westminster Diocese Peace and Justice Commission, for five days to observe Turkey’s municipal elections and meet with party representatives, journalists and lawyers.
Whilst in Istanbul, David Morgan and Father Ryan joined other international election monitors from across Europe to assess the conduct of the election process on the day. They also met with representatives from the BDP and the Free Democratic Party (HDP), as well as prominent human rights defenders and lawyers from the on-going KCK trial against Abdullah Ocalan’s legal team.
On their return, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign organised a public meeting to discuss their visit, the elections, and the implications of the results on the peace process. They also produced a report, Turkey after the Elections – Prospects for the Peace Process and Opportunities for the Kurds, in which they report back on allegations of election fraud, blackouts and burned ballots, as well as the new role of the HDP as the sister party to the BDP, which was established for the purpose of widening the support base and contributing to the further democratisation of Turkey.
Margaret Owen, patron of Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and human rights barrister, as well as Director of Widows for Peace and Democracy and a founder member of Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS), travelled to Rojava on 20 December 2013 on a 7-day fact-finding and solidarity mission to the region (read the press release). The trip came a month after the Kurdish regions of Rojava established an interim transitional administration following a conference attended by representatives of 35 local political and civic organisations.
The main purpose of the visit was to meet with representatives of civil society, political and humanitarian organisations operating in the area, and in particular, women’s groups. Women have played a crucial role in the revolutionary progress of Rojava, making up nearly 50% of the armed self-defence units (YPJ), as well as taking senior positions in political parties and civil society organisations. These included the Families of the Martyrs Association; SARA, a women’s organisation addressing gender based violence (GBV); the Martyrs Cemetery; the Widows’ organisation; Assayis (the Rojava Police Training Centre); the armed women defenders of Rojava; the Women’s Academies and the Women’s Houses.
INTERNATIONAL OBSERVATION OF THE KCK TRIAL OF KURDISH LAWYERS
In November 2011, 46 lawyers* were arrested in simultaneous police raids in many Turkish cities as part of the so-called KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) operations, anti-terror operations that have seen over 8,000 journalists, trade unionists, politicians, deputies, local councillors and mayors arrested since 2009. All of the lawyers had, at various times, worked as legal representatives for Abdullah Ocalan, and the charges accuse them of acting as ‘mediators’ for the Kurdish leader, passing on information and orders, and being part of the strategy and management of an illegal organisation. Read our letter to Foreign Minister William Hague appealing for their immediate release after their arrest.
At the time of their arrest, Ocalan was being refused visits from family, friends and his legal team, being kept in a state of complete isolation that lasted from July 2011 until peace talks were announced at the end of 2012. This was never publicly explained, but, as Peace in Kurdistan campaign patron Margaret Owen wrote after observing the first hearing in the lawyers’ trial, it is clear that the lawyers’ arrests were part of a broader strategy to isolate Ocalan completely from the people he represents.
Margaret Owen OBE, a human rights barrister, was joined on the first trial monitoring delegation in July 2012 by Ali Has, London-based Kurdish solicitor and member of the Law Society Human Rights Committee. The trial took place in the largest court building in Europe, in the Silivri prison complex just outside Istanbul.
WOMEN’S SOLIDARITY DELEGATION TO NORTH KURDISTAN, JULY 2012
In July 2012, well-known academic, trade unionist and former elected member of the TUC women’s committee, Professor Mary Davis, travelled to North Kurdistan in Turkey on an international solidarity delegation. Professor Davis was one of twelve women on the delegation, which was organised by CENI – Kurdish Women’s Office for Peace with the support of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign.
Over ten days, the delegates met with many women from several different Kurdish women’s projects and organisations, from female members of KESK, the umbrella public services union, and of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to educators at Amed’s (Diyarbakir) women’s academies, to the Peace Mothers in Wan and to reporters who have established the first women-run news agency in the country.
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign interviewed Professor Davis on her return to the UK, where she gives her candid impressions on the repressive nature of Turkey’s approach to its Kurdish citizens in general, and Kurdish women in particular.
The delegation has also produced two reports so far related to their experiences. One is about their first impressions of the projects and women they met, and the second is an eyewitness account of the demonstrations in Amed on 14 July 2012,
A full report with contributions from all the delegates will available towards the end of the summer.
PARLIAMENTARY DELEGATION TO TURKISH ASSEMBLY IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE BDP, APRIL 2012
In early April 2012, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) invited Jeremy Corbyn MP, Lord Hylton and Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans to Ankara to meet with Kurdish and Turkish representatives and discuss the current wave of repression against the Kurdish people.
The delegates had a packed schedule in order to gather the broadest opinion on the issues as possible in their short time. In two days, they met with the Turkey Peace Assembly, representatives from the Turkish Human Rights Association and the women’s secretary of the education and teachers’ union, Egitim Sen, as well as with the Vice Chair of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), Mr Sezgin Tanrikulu, and UK Ambassador David Reddaway. They also met with BDP Vice Co-Chair Nazmi Gur, and BDP Deputy Chair, Mr Hasip Kaplan.
The delegation represents the first parliamentary visit from the UK to the Turkish Grand National Assembly.
The delegation report, written jointly on their return to the UK, gives an overview of the delegates’ experiences during the visit, and crucially, gives support to Kurdish demands for full inclusion in the new constitution; advocates the resumption of peace talks with leaders in the PKK; and reaffirms the need for far greater awareness amongst the international community regarding the Kurdish conflict and Turkey’s human rights record.
TURKEY GENERAL ELECTION MONITORING DELEGATION, JUNE 2011
On 12 June 2011, a group of independent observers travelled to Turkey to monitor the general elections. The observers returned with evidence of fraud and malpractice in the Southeast of the country. Even despite this, 36 representatives from the Labour, Freedom and Democracy platform, which included members of the BDP, were elected on the night, preventing an outright majority for Erdogan’s AKP government and representing a political watershed for Kurdish political representation in Turkey. Soon after the election, however, the country’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) barred Kurdish candidate Hatip Dicle from taking up his seat, an action which resulted in the remaining 35 BDP representatives boycotting the new Parliament until September 2011.
The 10 delegates included: Margaret Owen, barrister, member of Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC), sponsored by Britain Peace Council; Ali Has, lawyer and a spokesperson for Britain Peace Council; Hugo Charlton, criminal barrister, 1 Grays Inn; Zara Broughton, student film-maker; Jonathan Fryer, journalist, academic and Liberal International; Stephen Smellie, UNSION Scotland; Sherri Semsidini, human rights advisor at Trott and Gentry Solicitors; Omer Moore, human rights lawyer, Trott and Gentry Solicitors; Val Swain, activist, Fitwatch; Emily Apple, activist, Fitwatch, sponsored by UNITE, London North West Branch 9708; Mithat Ishakoglu PhD student Exeter University.
The full report on the reflections of the observers can be downloaded here: Turkish Election 2011: Victory at the polls – but what now for peace?
On their return, the delegates discussed their experiences at a public meeting in Portcullis House, giving attendees the opportunity to discuss the implications of the elections for the advancement of Kurdish civil and political rights. Read the meeting report.
Read a letter published in the Guardian on the lack of coverage given to Kurdish success in the election.
Read our press release: A CHANGE OF DIRECTION FOR TURKEY?
KCK TRIAL DELEGATION, JANUARY 2011
Following on from the observer delegation in October 2010, a further four representatives from the UK travelled to Diyarbakir to observe the continuation of the KCK trials, in which 151 Kurdish political leaders and human rights activists are facing charges of being members of an ‘illegal organisation’, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK). The delegates, along with some 20 other international observers who had arrived for the trial, watched proceedings grind to a halt when the court refused the defendants the right to testify in Kurdish. They also found that the loose evidence against the defendants was based on telephone calls and email correspondence, and the Indictments had little clarity on precisely what many of the defendants were actually accused of. Fr. Joe Ryan, Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Westminster, Liberal Democrat politician and human rights activist Nasser Butt, human rights lawyer Sanya Karakaş and solicitor Omer Moore, Trott & Gentry Solicitors, formed the delegation and provided us with their observations on their return. Download the full report on the January hearings of the trial here: KCK Trial Delegation Report, January 2011
Read our press release: TRIAL OF KURDS ‘TURNS TABLES ON TURKEY’: 2nd UK DELEGATION TO MASS TRIAL REPORTS BACK
Lord Rea hosted a meeting in parliament soon after the return of the delegates. Read a report of the meeting here.
You can also read a follow-up report by Mithat Ishakoglu, who observed further KCK hearings on 2 and 3 August 2011.
KCK TRIAL DELEGATION, OCTOBER 2010
In October 2010, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign organised a delegation of legal and political representatives from the UK to observe the opening of a mass trial of 151 Kurdish political leaders in Diyarbakir. The defendants are charged with being members of the umbrella organisation of civil society groups, the KCK, which the Turkish government alleges has connections with the prohibited Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Margaret Owen, human rights lawyer, Hugo Charlton, barrister, and lawyers Ali Has and Serife Semsedini, witnessed the prosecutors submit a dossier of charges of 7,500 pages to the court, as well as a massive show of solidarity for the defendants from inside and outside the courtroom. The observers provided us with their reflections on the trial, and its implications for the future of democracy in Turkey, for our report Mass trials put all Kurds in the dock. Download the full report here: KCK Trials report
Read our press release: UK delegation to observe Diyarbakir trial of 151 Kurdish political activists and human rights defenders.
Read Jeremy Corbyn’s article on the observer mission for the Morning Star.
Following the return of the delegates, a parliamentary meeting that was held in the House of Commons on 9 November 2010, hosted by Hywel Williams MP. Read our report on the meeting.