Germany turns a blind eye to pressures on civil Kurdish opposition

Germany turns a blind eye to pressures on civil Kurdish opposition


It is no coincidence that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan recently accused German political foundations of supporting the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) both politically and financially. The accusations are unfounded but calculated. Their aim is to isolate the civil Kurdish opposition on an international level and to suppress any form of collaboration with it.

Nevertheless, Kurdish civil society should not be abandoned, especially now, as it suffers from massive suppression. Just one of many examples: Büşra Ersanlı was arrested Oct. 31.

She represents the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in the constitutional assembly of the Turkish Parliament. Ms. Ersanlı is a professor of international relations at Istanbul Marmara University, a member of the executive board of the BDP and a well-known human rights and women’s rights activist.

In the course of searching her apartment, the police confiscated notes, which led the custodial judge to ask questions such as: “In your notes the words ‘right of self-determination’ and ‘local self-determination’ were found; why did you write this? What did your note ‘Example Spanie’ mean? Why did you write ‘citizenship of Turkey’ and not ‘Turkish citizenship’? Why were you invited to a Roj TV show [a PKK sympathetic TV program produced in Denmark]?”

The judge issued an arrest warrant for Büşra Ersanlı on the grounds of her membership in the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). Turkish authorities banned the KCK as a front organization for the PKK.

Alongside Ms. Ersanli, the internationally renowned publisher Ragip Zarakolu was arrested, who was actually invited to a dinner with the minister of culture the same day. In total, 42 people were targeted on that Monday. It is difficult to keep an overview on who has been arrested because of alleged membership in the KCK. The BDP Party knows of 3,548 persons who are being held in custody – mayors and municipal delegates, journalists, academics and NGO activists. They were not arrested for violent crimes but for the offense of expressing their opinion. Thus, there is no choice but to call them political prisoners. Their number probably amounts to more than 4,000 persons. Turkish anti-terror legislation allows detainees to be kept in custody for up to 10 years before a trial.

There is no question that the PKK is an inauspicious and Stone Age force, which contributes to the escalating spiral of violence with its attacks, assaults and kidnappings. The question, however, is whether the fight against them justifies the means with which the government, army and judicial system take action against real and alleged sympathizers – and if this policy actually accomplishes something more than a strengthening of the PKK.

In early October, I accompanied the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office in Turkey on a trip through southeastern Anatolia. We had many conversations with lawyers, Kurdish politicians and civil society organizations to gain an understanding of the situation.

Just two years ago, it seemed that Erdoğan wanted to take a new approach regarding the Kurds:

Kurdish language media was allowed, and informal negotiations with the PKK took place about bringing an end to the armed conflict. Now the short phase of improved Turkish-Kurdish relations seems to be over. The PKK has resumed its guerilla warfare, and the government of the conservative-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) has returned to the policy of repression of its Kemalist predecessors.

It does not show a willingness to reach a political solution to the conflict that has stirred up animosity on both sides. This is especially true for the two central points of the Kurdish autonomy efforts: permitting [Kurdish] native language schooling and extended local autonomy for Kurdish municipalities and regions. Whoever raises such demands will be accused of supporting the PKK and will be arrested. The publisher of a Kurdish daily newspaper, for example, is in jail. Mayors are being arrested because they printed bilingual information brochures for municipal services.

However, 30 years of violent conflict have shown that the Kurdish issue will not be solved through military means. With the current wave of arrests, the Turkish government is destroying the very force that would make a peaceful solution possible: a civil society opposition that participates in the political organization of the country.

Including the opposition is significant – especially in a phase in which Turkey wants to develop a new constitution. A parting with the ethnic-nationalistic concept of “Turkishness” as the state’s foundation is necessary. The constitution must do justice to Turkey’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. A constituent process that does not allow for such a discussion cannot be called democratic. In a reaction to the most recent arrests, congressmen belonging to the BDP declared that a constituent process is not possible under these circumstances.

One wonders if the AKP-led government aims for the BDP to leave the constituent commission. With it, any chance for a new beginning would be lost.

In Germany, Erdoğan presents himself as an advocate for Turkish immigrants. In Turkey, however, he rejects every civil society engagement of international organizations as “inference in internal affairs.” This rhetoric of intimidation seems to be effective. Why else did the German government not speak out publicly against the wave of arrests in Turkey? There is nothing wrong with Chancellor Merkel offering support to the Turkish prime minister in his fight against terrorism. That cannot mean, however, remaining silent in the face of severe violations of constitutional norms.

Ralf Fücks is president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. This article was first published in the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung