Report on an emergency visit to HDP MPs in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 18th -20th November 2016 by Julie Ward MEP and Melanie Gingell, barrister
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign
MPs in South-East Turkey have expressed fears that the next step in the repressive, downward spiral in the mainly Kurdish district of South-East Turkey will be a genocide.
Julie Ward, Labour MEP for North West England, and Melanie Gingell, Barrister, visited Diyarbakir in South East Turkey between 18th and 20th November 2016 in response to an urgent call from the HDP in a mission facilitated by Peace in Kurdistan Campaign. Both women have made previous visits to the region, Ward as recently as mid-October 2016.
Co-chair of the HDP, Figen Yuksekdag, said : “We have never agreed and will not agree with the pro-coup mindset that bombs the parliament and ignores the people’s will.”
Since 15th July however, the government has unleashed a series of opportunistic assaults on the people’s chosen representatives. They have detained elected HDP politicians at all levels including municipal mayors and MPs thus denying the voice of the millions of people who voted for the HDP across the country.
The delegation met with Sibel Yigitalp HDP MP in Diyarbakir, Emine Ozmen, Deputy Co-Chair of the Democratic Regions Party, Leyla Guven , Co-Chair of the Democratic Society Congress and elected members of the City Council. There were also meetings with journalists, trade unionists and representatives of civil society and aid organisations, which had been shut down in the week before this visit.
Ms Yigitalp MP described an accelerated descent into authoritarianism experienced by the population in the previous three weeks. The Municipal Building in the centre of town is in lock down; the co-mayors have been detained despite an absence of evidence of wrong doing against them. An unelected AKP Trustee has been appointed to run the municipality and all powers have been transferred to him. There is a heavy police presence around the building with checkpoints in operation for workers who need to reach their offices. She described the building, which should be open to the public, as now having the intimidatory guise of a colonial police station.
Ms Yigitalp was one of the few remaining MPs at liberty. She was expecting however to be arrested imminently together with all her colleagues in the HDP who are presently at liberty, following a press conference they gave three weeks earlier. Yigitalp has compiled and shared a document detailing in particular the Turkish government’s offensive on the historic district of Sur, which resulted in many deaths, destruction of historic buildings and damage to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During her previous visit to Diyarbakir Ms Ward had met relatives of young people who had been burned alive in a basement.
Freedom of expression is now so curtailed in Turkey that any public criticism of the authorities, even by MPs, is likely to result in the speaker being detained. The European Court of Human Rights has stated, in the case of Kart v Turkey in 2005, that “[w]hile freedom of expression is important for everybody, it is especially so for an elected representative of the people. He (sic) represents his electorate, draws attention to their preoccupations and defends their interests. Accordingly, interferences with the freedom of expression of an opposition member of parliament, like the applicant, call for the closest scrutiny on the part of the Court.” As concerns parliamentary immunity, the Court held that “the inherent characteristics of the system of parliamentary immunity and the resulting derogation from the ordinary law pursue the aim of allowing free speech for representatives of the people and preventing partisan complaints from interfering with parliamentary functions”. 
Parliamentary immunity was lifted in Turkey on 20th May 2016, by virtue of a constitutional amendment, which affects nearly all Members of Parliament of one opposition party, namely the HDP. It leaves them open to prosecution for expressing their political opinions; and this in a country where the European Court of Human Rights has most often found a violation of the right to freedom of expression. There are presently 104 cases 17 of which relate to violation of freedom of expression with respect mainly to propaganda for terrorism pending before the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Furthermore it is also a country in which the notion of the independence of the judiciary is under serious threat, with more than 3000 judges and prosecutors being summarily dismissed, including judges of the highest courts. Even the Constitutional Court was directly affected with two of its members being dismissed. A high number of these judges and prosecutors are now under arrest. It is highly unlikely therefore that these political opponents of the government can receive a fair trial.
Ms Yigitalp said the most pressing issue is the extreme isolation of HDP detainees and their consequent vulnerability. They are being held in solitary confinement with few visits allowed from family members. Selahattin Demirtas, Co-Chair of the HDP, for example, is being held at Edirne, an F-Type Maximum Security Prison, many miles from family members. He is being held in solitary confinement but has to take exercise in the company of prisoners who are known Sunni extremist terrorists. The fear is that prisoners who are deeply opposed to his political views, his pluralism and progressive social policies, will attack him. This appears to be a deliberate policy by the authorities to intimidate, and expose HDP prisoners to serious risk of bodily harm or death.
In the wider community, there is a build up of aggressive rhetoric in social media, against Kurdish people and their representatives, which is reminiscent of the pre-genocide period in Rwanda when the Tutsi were demonised prior to being subjected to systematic attacks and mass atrocities.
We were told that the next phase in the repression of the Kurdish movement was likely to be mass atrocities. The mayor of Ankara has openly called for AKP supporters to arm themselves. In Van on the evening of 17th November a woman was burnt alive in her house by soldiers and police who had informally identified the house as a “terrorist” house. This incident follows on from a series of suspected crimes against humanity in cities like Cizre and Nusaybin where the local population appeared to be subjected to collective punishment as the government authorities conducted a military campaign against PKK militants.
One of the most notorious incidents was at the end of January 2016, when dozens of people took shelter in the basements of several separate buildings amid heavy clashes outside. The Turkish authorities refused to allow medical teams to reach at least 12 seriously wounded people, part of a group of more than 20 that were stranded at one location. Amnesty International said: “This is a desperate situation: injured individuals, some of whom are apparently bleeding heavily, are at grave risk of dying if they do not urgently receive medical care …. Lives are dangling in the balance and it defies belief that the authorities cannot find a solution. Whatever the circumstances which led to these men’s injuries, they have a right to receive life-saving medical treatment and the state should facilitate, not impede, such care.” All of those people in the basements subsequently died.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations has called for the Turkish authorities to allow the UN to investigate these allegations, but so far to no avail. Julie Ward went to Nusaybin during her October visit and met with bereaved mothers and saw for herself the ongoing clearance of whole neighbourhoods and the desecration of graves. “Many families have yet to receive the corpses of their loved ones and in some cases only a few body parts have been identified and returned,” said Ward who has worked in Bosnia and Rwanda. She described the situation in Nusaybin as reminiscent of Srebrenica.
Meeting With Journalists
The delegation also talked with journalists and representatives of the media who are increasingly under attack and banned from reporting. Journalists attending the meeting included print journalists, press photographers, an injured film cameraman and women from the feminist media collective JINHA whose premises were forcibly closed in the fortnight following Ward’s earlier visit. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turkish-authorities-shut-down-first-international-feminist-news-agency-a7390766.html A young woman reporter told how she had been detained for the dubious crime of ‘being too excited’. Such sexist attitudes to women are highly prevalent in the current political climate and Kurdish women activists are stepping up their campaigns to expose the misogyny of Erdogan and his supporters.
The delegation attended the annual congress of KJA (Free Women’s Congress) on 20th November in Diyarbakir together with representatives from Germany, Serbia, the Basque Country and Sinn Fein.
KJA was one of the civil society organisations closed down in the preceding week with no warnings or reasons given. It has waged a fearless battle for women’s rights and freedoms over the last 40 years, in the face of extreme opposition and has been instrumental in breaking down the barriers that have traditionally trapped women in the private sphere. KJA has inspired women across the region to demand their equal rights and to participate equally in society, to seek equality in political office, for example, with each post being held jointly by a woman and a man.
Kurdish women are now visible and participating in society in south-east Turkey, in a way that has rarely been seen before, either in the region, or indeed anywhere. The strength and commitment to the cause, in the face of extreme repression, is inspiring. These achievements are a direct result of women organising autonomously, in civil society organisations, for which KJA provides the umbrella structure and support.
An example of the AKP ideological assault on the women’s movement was announced as we arrived in Diyarbakir: a despicable ‘child marriage’ bill that would have allowed a suspension of conviction or sentence to those charged with the rape of minors, where they subsequently marry the victim. This attack on the fundamental dignity and bodily integrity of girl children is shocking to the core and represents a return to the dark ages of gender politics in Turkey. Yigitalp described the bill as a proposal to “legalise paedophilia”. In a small glimmer of hope, the bill was withdrawn after mass protests and international condemnation, but President Erdogan has said that he will seek wider consultation on the matter. It falls to all of us who care about freedom, democracy and human rights to remain vigilant and to continue to speak out against oppression.
The delegation members spoke at the women’s conference to offer solidarity from British and European progressive organisations, promising to share their experiences and findings with the wider world.
Post Script: Before leaving the country Julie Ward met with the brother and parliamentary assistant of imprisoned HDP MP Leyla Birlik. She attempted to visit Leyla in Silivri prison near Istanbul but was not given permission. Her account of the process can be read here http://www.juliewardmep.eu/julie_barred_from_visiting_jailed_turkish_hdp_mp_leyla_birlik
For more information and interviews with Julie Ward MEP and Melanie Gingell please contact:
Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question
Email: [email protected]
Contacts Estella Schmid 020 7586 5892 & Melanie Gingell – Tel: 020 7272 7890
Patrons: Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford, Jill Evans MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Kate Osamor MP, Elfyn Llwyd, Dafydd Iwan, Former President Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy, John Austin, Christine Blower, NUT International Secretary, Simon Dubbins, UNITE International Director, Doug Nicholls, General Secretary, General Federations of Trade Unions, Bruce Kent, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, John Berger, James Kelman, Margaret Owen OBE, Prof Mary Davis, Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, Mark Thomas, Nick Hildyard, Stephen Smellie, Derek Wall, Melanie Gingell, Steve Sweeney
 ECtHR, Case of Kart v. Turkey, Application no. 8917/05, par. 88.