Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based international nongovernmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, said an ongoing crackdown on democratically elected Kurdish officials in Turkey not only violates their rights to political association and participation and freedom of expression, but also interferes with the rights of constituents who voted for them and whom they serve while in office.
The Turkish government has jailed 13 members of the pro-Kurdish democratic opposition in Parliament on terrorism charges and taken direct control of 82 municipalities in the Kurdish southeast region, suspending and incarcerating elected mayors, HRW said in a report released on Monday.
The move against the national pro-Kurdish party, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and its regional sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), comes in the lead-up to an April 16, 2017 constitutional referendum on an amendment that would transform Turkey from its traditional parliamentary political system to a presidential one, leading to a concentration of power in the office of the president. The proposal has been widely criticized for lacking adequate checks and balances to protect human rights and rule of law against misuse of power by the office of the president. Both parties oppose such an expansion of presidential powers.
“It’s deeply damaging to Turkey’s democracy that the government is locking up the leaders and MPs of an opposition party that received five million votes in the last election,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “The fact that the curbs come during a vital national debate about the country’s future is doubly disturbing.”
Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the co-leaders of the HDP, and 11 of its other parliament members are in jail facing terrorism charges. Yüksekdağ was stripped of her seat in February and subsequently of her party membership after an earlier terrorism propaganda conviction was upheld. In Turkey’s southeast, the government has taken control of 82 municipalities won by the DBP and suspended their democratically elected co-mayors under suspicion of terrorism offenses, with 90 of them jailed pending trial.
The jailing of the parliament members is possible because of a temporary constitutional change, approved by parliament in May 2016, that lifted the parliamentary immunity of 154 members under investigation at that time for criminal offenses – 55 are HDP members. The change does not apply to members investigated after the May vote was taken, who retain their immunity as long as they stay in office.
The one-time removal of immunity has been criticized by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which advises on constitutional matters, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
In the period before the immunity vote, there was a sharp increase in applications by prosecutors to investigate HDP members of parliament, with almost 152 applications in the month before the vote alone.
Police detained Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ and the deputy chair of the party’s parliamentary group, İdris Baluken, on November 4, 2016, as well as six other parliament members – Nursel Aydoğan, Gülser Yıldırım, Leyla Birlik, Selma Irmak, Ferhat Encü, and Abdullah Zeydan. They were brought before courts and sent to pretrial detention the same day.
Nihat Akdoğan, another member, was detained and jailed three days later. In the following months four more parliament members were jailed – Ayhan Bilgen, the party spokesman, Meral Danış Beştaş, a Parliamentary constitution commission member, Besime Konca, and Çağlar Demirel. All have since been indicted on terrorism charges. Other HDP parliament members were detained and released on probation, with Leyla Birlik released from prison on January 4 at her first trial hearing.
The jailing of the party leaders and members of parliament constitutes an alarming interference with the party’s parliamentary work and its right to organize its campaign in advance of the referendum, HRW said. It is reminiscent of the situation in 1994 when the immunity of Democracy Party (DEP) members of parliament was lifted and Leyla Zana, OrhanDoğan, HatipDicle, and SelimSadak were jailed days later on terrorism charges, spending a decade in jail. They were convicted of membership of an armed group in a trial the European Court of Human Rights ruled was unfair and violated their rights.
The government has used powers under the state of emergency adopted following the July 2016 attempted coup to take direct control of municipalities and remove elected mayors. A September 1 decree (no. 674) amended the Law on Municipalities to permit the takeover of municipalities suspected of supporting terrorism. Mayors in 82 of the 103 municipalities controlled by the DBP have been suspended from office on alleged suspicion of terrorist offenses and the municipalities taken over by government-appointed provincial authorities. Mayors from other parties were removed in four other municipalities but in each case the authorities allowed other elected local representatives to take over their duties.
Thousands of other members of both pro-Kurdish parties have been arrested. The HDP informed HRW that since the July 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, 5,471 of its party officials, including heads of provincial and district branches, had been detained, with 1,482 sent to pretrial detention. The BDP sister party told Human Rights Watch that 3,547 of its party officials had been placed in pretrial detention since July 2015. The arrests have undermined the ability of parties to conduct a campaign over the upcoming referendum, officials from both parties say.
The HRW said the actions of the authorities against democratically elected officials are counter to Turkey’s responsibilities under international and regional human rights law, including the right to political participation, the right to free elections, the right to freedom of expression, and the rights to freedom of association and assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
The April referendum will take place in a repressive climate in which Turkey’s independent media have been silenced and 148 journalists and media workers remain in jail, the majority incarcerated since the coup and not yet indicted for any crime, the HRW said. A state of emergency, which the government has extended at three-month intervals after the coup, is expected to be prolonged once again when it comes up for possible renewal on April 19, after the referendum.
“The government’s crackdown on pro-Kurdish parties is robbing millions of voters of their parliamentary representatives, and in a vast swathe of the eastern and southeastern parts of the country it is robbing voters of their local representatives as well,” Williamson said.