A War on Dissent in Turkey

Ragip Zarakolu

Activist Ragip Zarakolu is currently languishing in a Turkish prison (Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

It has, by any standards, been a painful last few months in Turkey.  Violence between the Kurdish nationalist PKK and the Turkish state has risen sharply, resulting in the Turkish military crossing over into Northern Iraq in force.  A devastating earthquake in the city of Van has killed hundreds, left thousands seriously injured, and left tens of thousands homeless as cold weather moves into the region.  Coming at a time of increased tensions between Kurds and Turks, the tragedy in Van exposed political as well as geological fault lines that bode ill for Turkey’s future.

And then there are the arrests.  Little noticed outside of Turkey, thousands have been arrested over the past few years for what appear to be political crimes.  Since 2001, some 12,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested under terror statutes, with nearly four thousand arrested in just the last thirty months.

As Amnesty described at 2009:

Anti-terrorism legislation is particularly problematic in that it is used to bring a large number of prosecutions targeting legitimate free expression regarding the Kurdish issue in Turkey, and frequently results in custodial sentences. Article 215 of the Penal Code creates a criminal offence of the mere public mention of certain individuals’ names. Its application has mainly targeted Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin, in particular with references to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, and those who have been commemorating radical left-wing groups and their leaders of the 1960s. The remit of Article 7/2 of the anti-terrorism law is very broad, and in particular makes no distinction between supporting political aims, which are shared by a ‘terrorist’ organisation, and promoting that organization, including its violent methods and actions.

In the past month, leading intellectuals have been rounded up for alleged affiliation with the Turkish Assembly of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK/TM).  Many of those arrested are affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Development Party, or BDP.  Those arrested include a publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, who has been a key figure in human rights advocacy in Turkey for decades (and suffered from political repression under successive governments for his efforts).  Zarakolu is in ill health and there is the very real danger that his incarceration will endanger his life.  Also among those arrested is the political scientist, Büşra Ersanlı, whose ground-breaking work on early Turkish nationalism continues to be consulted by scholars throughout the world.

These arrests point to serious problems.  First, there is the nature of the crimes, which allege no violence: mere “association” is enough to be counted as a terrorist.  And the connections are tenuous: as Human Rights Watch has noted, these arrests seem less aimed at addressing terror than on attacking “legal pro-Kurdish [political organizations.]”   Second, the arrests come at a time when Turkey is planning to develop a new constitution.  While there is little question that the current constitution, largely drafted under military rule, needs to be revised, the silencing of pro-Kurdish voices as constitutional debates go forward bodes ill for Turkey’s future.  Finally, there is the way suspects are treated: virtually all are subject to pre-trial detentions, effectively denying them freedom without any any proof that they have committed a crime.

In the end, what is going on in Turkey appears to be an attempt to stifle Kurdish voices as Turkey deals with fundamental issues of security and the future of the country.   These arrests look less like a “War on Terror” than a “War on Dissent.”

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