Turkish prisons, which currently hold some 300,000 inmates, will see more than a quarter of them go home thanks to a law ratified by the Turkish Parliament on 14 April, a day after three prisoners were confirmed dead with coronavirus, and 17 infections had been reported.
The stated aim is to cut down the number of prisoners —whether convicted or pending trial— in the face of the advance of the virus. But the law excludes those convicted or accused of crimes related to drug trafficking, murder, violence against women, and terrorism.
The charge of “terrorism” is often used by Turkish authorities to arrest and condemn opposition politicians and journalists, including members of Kurdish political and social movements. Some 50,000 people accused of terrorism are currently jailed in Turkish prisons.
Amnesty International has reported that prisons are “overcrowded” and suffer from a “serious lack of hygiene”. “Those convicted in unfair trials under Turkey’s overly broad anti-terrorism laws are also now condemned to face the prospect of infection from this deadly disease,” Amnesty International’s Turkey Campaigner, Milena Buyum, said.
Another eight Kurdish mayors dismissed —already two-thirds of HDP’s total
The law has been passed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative Islamist AKP and their allies, far-right ultranationalist MHP. The law has been rejected both by the CHP’s social democratic opposition —which has accused the government of “holding dissidents, journalists and intellectuals inside [while it] sets the vicious thief free”— and by left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP.
On 23 March, as the coronavirus emergency had started, eight HDP mayors were dismissed from their positions in the municipalities of Batman, Ergani, Eğil, Lice, Silvan, Güroymak, Halfeli and Gökçedağ, accused of “terrorism” and of having links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed political-military organisation.
The eight mayors have been replaced by Turkish government-appointed trustees.
Including them, 40 HDP mayors have now been dismissed: two-thirds of the 59 municipalities that the Kurdish left-wing party won in the local elections of 31 March 2019.
The Kurdish movement claims that the arrests are undemocratic, denies accusations of terrorist links of HDP politicians, and denounces that the Turkish government continues to take such decisions despite the current health emergency.
The Turkish Ministry of Interior is “depriving thousands of voters of their choice” through dismissals and arrests with “scant evidence”, based on “secret witnesses” and amid a “a pattern of complete misuse of the charge of terrorism against people,” claims Human Rights Watch researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb.
The Turkish government, however, says that HDP mayors are ultimately controlled by the PKK.
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Ayşe Gökkan: “The State not only confiscates resources that Kurds have created by their own means, but it does not provide other means either”
In order to better understand how the Kurdish movement is going through this situation, Nationalia has spoken by telematic means with Ayşe Gökkan, spokeswoman of the Free Women Movement (TJA, Kurdish acronym) and former Nisêbîn (Nusaybin) mayor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nationalia: A new law has been passed by the Turkish Parliament for the release of prisoners during the coronavirus emergency. But terror-related crimes are excluded from the measure. Why are Kurdish groups saying that this decision targets the Kurdish people?
Ayşe Gökkan: It targets the Kurdish people because in the absence of a definition of “terror” accepted by all international organizations, the Turkish State can declare all institutions, organizations, dynamics, women’s movements, initiatives, groups, leftists, socialists, democrats, political parties, women’s and mixed associations, and even individuals who advocate the democratic, ecological and women’s liberation paradigm as “terrorists” and any activity as “terror”. Thus, it can keep people in prison for decades.
The State had acknowledged that the Kurdish movement and women’s freedom movement had emerged because it had not resolved the Kurdish and women’s questions by democratic means, but rather it had attacked them by means of security-based policies. Based on this, and in order to resolve the Kurdish question, women’s question, and ecological problems by democratic means, the State signed a resolution protocol with [PKK leader] Abdullah Öcalan whom it acknowledged as the leader of Kurdish people. Then, the State once again relapsed to [conflict] resolution by military means.
Today, people from all imaginable sectors, who insist on a democratic, ecological, women-emancipatory resolution, led by women’s movements and activists, politicians, workers, students, investigative journalists, businesspeople, parliamentarians, co-mayors and municipal councillors, are put in prison by the Turkish judiciary on terrorism charges based on indictments that even include their demands for human and women’s rights. Their activities are criminalized.
We witnessed a midnight law due to the coronavirus releasing molesters, rapists, thieves, swindlers, those who committed the crime of marrying a child. In other words, those who committed crimes against humanity were released. Whereas resisters, activists, 50,000 prisoners —the ill, the elderly, women activists, and women with children— who acted in self-defense demanding equality, freedom and democracy are left for death. Stateless peoples and beliefs and women who demand the most basic human and women’s rights are being declared terrorists and they are wanted to be killed in dungeons via the coronavirus. And it is not only the prisoners being punished, but also their thousands and millions of friends and family and relatives. This is a practice which targets millions of Kurds. What more can they do?!
N: What new problems is creating the propagation of coronavirus in Kurdish regions?
A. G.: The coronavirus creates problems in the whole world. It is the plague of capitalist modernity. However, it creates thrice as many problems in Kurdistan. The denial and refusal policies of the State impedes [the provision of] all types of services, medical care included from the Kurds, Kurdish women, and all the more so if they are Alevi or Yezidis on account of their beliefs. Among serious problems are the absence of coronavirus testing centres in Kurdistan, the appointment of administrative trustees to municipalities that are taking measures against the epidemic, the mass detention of those voicing their protest through social media, and the attacks on Kurdish regions.
One of the most serious problems is that the State is taking advantage of the coronavirus to step up its attacks which exploit, further aggravate racist and sexist policies.
Furthermore there is a grave problem of confidence between the State and the Kurdish women and people. The lack of confidence created by the refusal to resolve the Kurdish question through democratic means is further compounded by the recent arbitrary detentions and attacks. The State has an attitude that rejects any collaboration with local dynamics. Since the security institutions of the State have been used as torture, repression, and sexual violence centres, women, or people with any grievances for that matter, cannot even find the space to make applications. An atrocious example: three years after a DNA test was carried out, the State has now delivered a Kurdish mother the bone remains of her son by mail, on pretext of the coronavirus epidemic. We cannot imagine the preparations of how many more such practices are underway as we conduct this interview.
N: Is the dismissal of HDP mayors affecting the fight against the coronavirus in Kurdish cities, and if so, why?
A. G.: Its effects are far greater than one would imagine. Here, you have to see the lack of confidence in the State, which has taken root in the Kurdish society due to the destruction, devastation, depredation, impoverishment, massacres, abuse and rapes, attacks, heavy aerial and land bombardment on the pretext of border security brought about by 40-years of low-intensity war as acknowledged even by the Turkish general command itself. Only then can you understand how counter-effective the dismissal of mayors, whom people elected on their own will from a political party they trust, has been on the fight against the coronavirus. Why would a government that confiscated and occupied your will protect you? Just as the Kurdish municipalities had begun to supply water free of charge, and conduct a rigorous disinfection of the cities, the State appointed administrative trustees to 8 provincial and district municipalities. At the same time, the trustee appointed to the municipality of Amed (Diyarbakır), a city of 3 million people, distributed fake disinfectant material, practically poisoning the people. The State not only confiscates the resources that Kurds have created by their own means, but it does not provide other means either.
N: The Kurdish movement is blaming the Turkish authorities for obstructing Kurdish social organizations from co-ordinating among themselves in the fight against the crisis. Why?
A. G.: Because the State refuses and denies the Kurdish community —and recognizing it as an enemy it develops its policies accordingly—, it leaves the Kurds face to face with death and massacre at every opportunity. The 100% increase in violence against women during this period is a consequence of the State’s attacks on women and its obstruction of women’s means of coordinating among themselves. In a regime presided by a party-affiliated president who makes preaches that “men and women, by creation, are not equal”, his criminalization of every person fighting against this crisis is the biggest crime against humanity. Nowadays, the coronavirus is being used as a weapon against the Kurdish people by the State.
The worst part is that universal international conventions are being reduced to nought. In the case of crimes against humanity, recommendations are not enough to save the human conscience, nor do they protect the inviolability of life. The Turkish state implements discriminatory policies and even blocks the social media, where solidarity is coordinated, in order to prevent the Kurds and the women from helping each other. And it doesn’t leave it at preventing: in such times of pandemics, the state puts them in jail. The State has opportunistically passed a law that allows the security department to re-interrogate prisoners for up to 15 days, whether they be convicts or detainees.
This is not the time for hostility or face-off. It’s the time for solidarity with all social dynamics and with local administrations. It is the day for developing common solutions to problems. This is the time for raising social peace to the highest level. The right to life is fundamental to all universal conventions. Political prisoners must be released from prison immediately. We call on all authorities to remain loyal to the sanctity of the right to life.
This is our call to all national and international authorities: let’s solve the problem in Kurdistan on the basis of collective wisdom, preempting further brutalization. We also emphasize the fact that they must put pressure on the Turkish state for the protection of the foremost international universal value: the right to life. They must insist that a struggle be waged to put an end to femicide. This is a responsibility to stop the crimes against humanity. Otherwise, states will never be able to free themselves of this shame.
Everyone should rest assured that we, as the TJA, will be persistent in “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (“Women, Life, Freedom”) and that we will never budge in the face of any attack.