Death of a peace process: martial law returns to Turkey

Ankara, Turkey (openDemocracy) – The Kurdish peace process is over and a huge wave of violence has started in Turkey’s south-east.  The violence follows the killing of 33 Kurds in the Suruc bombing and the subsequent murders of two policemen in nearby Viransehir. Many fear that what is happening in Kurdish region of Turkey now is a return to the 1990s which were marked by widespread violence and state crimes. In this period much of Turkey’s south-east became what Agamben has described as a state of exception: martial law became normalised during the 1990s and the Kurdish region experienced intensely high levels of state crime including village destruction, massacres, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, mass forced displacement and endemic torture.

Image Source: ree kurdistan, Flickr, Creative Commons Kurdish YPG Fighter YPJ

Image Source: ree kurdistan, Flickr, Creative Commons
Kurdish YPG Fighter
YPJ

It seems that the nature of the Turkish state in relation to its Kurdish minority has not changed since the dark days of the 1990s – the inherited fear of Kurdish separatism and the Kurds themselves remains. We prefer to call it Kurdophobia, given that for 15 years the leaders of the Kurdish movement have made clear their demands are not for a separate nation but instead for equal citizenship in a democratic state.

For the past two years negotiations between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government had resulted in a peace process – the aim of which, for Kurdish leaders, was an end to the discrimination, human rights violations and violent conflict which the Kurdish community had long suffered at the hands of the Turkish state.

The peace process ended abruptly, a result it seems of the recent electoral success of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) in June, and the consequential thwarting of Erdogan’s presidential ambitions. Erdogan has made no secret of his desire for constitutional change towards a presidential system in which he would assume ultimate power. The approaching early general election in November is unlikely to change this course. The AKP administration’s dramatic loss of support among Kurds has forced it to consider ways in which it can restore those lost votes. Its first step was to re-introduce the ‘terror’ card by declaring a state of emergency in over a hundred different Kurdish regions. These regions have been declared high security regions and civilians are prohibited from entering even their villages or towns for days at a time.

Erdogan’s resurrection of the war on terror is, in effect, a return to the institutionalised punishment inflicted on all Turkish Kurds whose daily lives are obstructed at every level. In response to the broken ceasefire and the return of 1990s state practices, some pro-HDP ruling municipalities have declared political self-rule. A declaration of autonomy is a strong message to the state but it is important to distinguish between what the state understands as democratic autonomy and how the Kurdish political community perceives it. For the Kurdish movement, such a declaration is a way of exposing the state’s illegitimate activities in the region and seeking a situation in which elected Kurdish politicians might assume more power while still operating as a part of the Turkish nation. By contrast, the state accepts the declaration of democratic autonomy as a sign of separatism and the first stage in the establishment of a Kurdistan on Turkish land.

Most of the declarations of autonomy, perhaps unsurprisingly, have come from those Kurdish regions where security forces and the pro-PKK Kurdish Youth Organization (YDG-H) are engaged in increasingly violent confrontations. This violence, however, has affected the ways in which the declarations of autonomy have been perceived by the state and has, in turn, defined the intensity of the state’s response to those declaring autonomy. It seems that both sides are using a controlled-chaos strategy to threaten and inhibit the actions from the opposing side. Resorting to its long experience in state criminality, and in criminalising its political opponents, the Turkish state is in the process of creating a de facto state of martial law.The mayors of Diyarbakir’s Sur District, Fatma Şık Barut and Seyit Narin, with Kurdish students before their arrest. 

Fatma Şık Barut, a pro-HDP mayor of Diyarbakir Sur Municipality, was detained on 19 August, at 5am, in front of her 8-year-old daughter. She was held in detention for 4 days without charge, in contravention of regulations which stipulate a detainee must not be held longer than 24 hours without charge. The Turkish state, however, initiated recent changes which allow for detention without trial for up to four more days if security forces claim that the allegation consists of an organized crime. Despite the fact that it was the Sur neighbourhood committee and not the mayors who declared autonomy, Fatma Şık Barut was arrested with others including another Diyarbakir mayor, Seyit Narin. They were detained in their homes in an early morning raid. Some of those detained have alleged torture and exposure to physical and verbal violence and they were reportedly held in filthy cells without beds.

The raids and detentions had the character of performative symbolism. Such raids are normally reserved for suspects of violent crimes and those likely to flee. The mayors fit neither category and should have been invited for police questioning. For Fatma, her arrest and detention came as a complete surprise: “We have collaborated with our governor, the chief of the police department, the city administration and MPs to prevent the conflict that has been taking place over the past 15 days. Even the chief of police has called me several times to thank me for my effort to stop current events. I do not have any statement that explains what has been happening.”

After four days in custody, on 22 August at 9pm, they were brought before the court and accused under the infamous article 302 of attempting to destroy the unity of the state and integrity of the Republic. Article 302 carries with it a potential life sentence. The court hearing lasted less than 4 hours, and when the accused attempted to defend themselves, they were silenced by the judge. Despite a prohibition against the presence of armed security forces during the court session, weapons were visibly displayed by five officers, four of whom were identified as special police unit members (‘özel harekat’), and the fifth a member of MIT, the Turkish Intelligence Agency. Such was the speed and cursory nature of the court process that the decision on the guilt of the mayors had clearly already made. In a meeting on 18 August, with a neighbourhood ‘Muhtar’ (or headman), Recep Tayyip Erdogan had declared that  those responsible for the separatist acts “will be punished in the heaviest way”.

Immediately after the ‘hearing’, the detainees were bundled from the court and forced into waiting unplated and unmarked vehicles. The three mayors and two municipality workers were then ‘disappeared’ to an unknown destination revealed to neither the detainees nor their families.

Equally reminiscent of the state terror of the 1990s was the special police unit officer’s armed threat to those travelling in the car: “You are going to be executed”.

Over 48 hours and travelling only at night, the detainees were subject to persistent humiliation and threats. Following a short stop in the nearby city of Kirikkale, they arrived at Ankara Sincan Prison where the abuse and humiliations continued. There is a medical report confirming the detainees were tortured. Each detainee was strip-searched, a practice which had ended in Sincan Prison some years earlier, but resurrected for the Kurdish mayors. Following the strip-search, they were placed in a cell without any bed or basic furniture, denied food for 24 hours and told they would have to purchase anything they needed. Guilty until proven innocent, the mayors were then removed from their posts with immediate effect.

Fatma and her colleagues must now wait for the series of court hearings which will inevitably follow, and, which in Turkey, may take years before a final decision is handed down. This is also a form of judicial punishment.

This example show us just how fragile Turkey’s Kurdish reforms indeed are. The Turkish judiciary remain deeply opposed to Kurdish rights and the Turkish criminal justice system remains imbued with a counter-insurgency raison d’etre when dealing with Kurdish issues.  Turkey has placed the Kurds and their struggle for human rights within a state of exception – outside the protections of due process of law. In this state of exception unlawful treatments are legitimised and the accused is deprived of both voice and defence.

Here, the processes of arrest, trial and custody become in themselves forms of punishment, far removed from the protections of due process: violent house raids in the middle of the night, 4 days without any detailed investigation or charge, denying the right to self-defence, being removed from a farcical court hearing at night in unmarked vehicles, and being subjected to full strip-searches and humiliation.

Removed too are the more humane features of locating prisoners close to their homes and families. Despite room in Diyarbakir prison, the state has demanded that these public servant detainees be treated as exemplary high security threats to Turkish integrity. As such, they were theatrically transported to Ankara – a trophy in the President’s campaign for electoral success in November.

The message Erdogan is sending is clear – the peace process is over, the Kurds are once again Turkey’s greatest threat, and only a strong man leading a strong state can protect the Turkish population from Kurdish political violence. The attack on the Kurdish mayors and other civilian leaders is a powerful message of intent to all Kurds.

The joy felt by the Turkish left and Kurdish populations following the HDP’s success in the June elections has quickly descended into fear and despair in the wake of Erdogan’s campaign of judicial and military violence in the south-east – a campaign designed to restore support for his presidential ambitions, and one which is sure to continue and worsen as the November elections approach.

This report was prepared by INTERNATIONAL STATE CRIME INITIATIVE  for openDemocracy.