Lord Hylton: Assaults on the Living and the Dead in Turkey

Member of the House of Lords, Lord Hylton, took part in an election observation delegation to Turkey’s southeast to witness the November snap general elections. His report recounts the brutal force used by the Turkish state against Kurdish civilians over the course of the summer:

 

In September and October 2015 the Government of Turkey, headed by President Erdogan, launched attacks against their presumed enemies and opponents. These took place in the run-up to the general election of 1st November. The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, has been involved in political and armed struggles against the state. Many ceasefires have been offered, especially since 1999, the date of the capture and imprisonment of the party leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK, with the constitutional pro-Kurdish party, the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), and other cooperating groups including trade unions, different ethnic and religious communities, human rights and women’s organizations, and opposition parties etc, had long since declared in speeches and in writing that they did not seek to become independent or to separate from Turkey. They only wanted cultural and social autonomy within Turkey. The PKK made a unilateral ceasefire declaration on 10th October to avoid prejudice to the elections.

Instead of offering constitutional negotiations, the Turkish state chose to use brute force. The south-eastern town of Cizre was closed for nine days, followed by a total curfew from the 9th to the 12th September. Access to water, electricity and food was cut off. Mobile phones were blocked, as were the pharmacy, bakery and communal ovens. Twenty-one people were killed and many more injured. Three hundred lawyers from the region went to see what was happening. Their approach was blocked many miles away by police and Special Forces. They were only able to reach Cizre at 7.15 am on 12th September, as the total closure was ending.

Sur is a distinct neighbourhood on the edge of the city of Diyarbakir, adjoining the ancient city walls. It includes the traditional market area and is served by several primary schools and two lycées. The people come mainly from the poorer part of the Kurdish community. Near one entrance stands the beautiful Fatih Pasha Mosque, also known as Kurşunlu, by the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan, dating from about 1520 CE.

At 8 or 9 am on 12th September, military and police forces, backed by at least three armoured vehicles and a helicopter, attacked the neighbourhood, firing into private houses and public buildings. Bullet marks were still visible on walls at the end of October. One hundred or more bullets appeared to have struck the left-hand side of the façade of the famous mosque mentioned earlier. In addition, its ornamental outer iron gate has been removed. Much damage was done to private houses, both by live ammunition and by security forces searching for concealed weapons. The inhabitants have been told that necessary repairs will be done “after the elections”. The curfew lasted four days. The treatment of Sur reminded me of the brutal and illegal “closures” frequently imposed by Israel on Gaza and on Palestinians towns and villages in the Occupied West Bank, as “collective punishments”.

The Diyarbakir Branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association told me that since the 1st July, 104 PKK members had been killed, as against 105 members of the Security Services. More than 60 non-combatant civilians also lost their lives as a result of the violent conflict. President Erdogan reacted to the situation by approving the arbitrary arrest of some 1800 people. Besides councillors, party officials and human rights defenders, these included about one hundred elected mayors, of whom twenty or more are still in custody. They have usually been held in prisons, remote from their families. The President and his party have almost total control over the public media. The main independent TV channel was taken over since last June and now has state appointed managers.

The President thus created an atmosphere of tension and fear and refused a unilateral ceasefire offer. It is therefore hardly surprising that he was able to engender a voting swing in his favour on 1st November. This was most marked in central Anatolia and in Ankara. It is perhaps fortunate that he has failed to gain a “super-majority” in the Turkish Parliament, which would have allowed him to change the constitution to suit his purposes.

The President may yet over-reach himself. For example, he approved the destruction and desecration between 11th September and 23rd October of cemeteries in which PKK members have previously been buried. This was systematically done by the army and security services in the following cities: Agri, Muş, Van, Bitlis, Mardin, Hakkari, Kars, Erzerum, Diyarbakir, Sürt. The Free Women’s Association documented these unworthy acts, even stating that autopsies had been carried out on some disinterred corpses. Photographs of the devastation are available here.

Such action is, of course, totally contrary to Muslim faith and traditions, whose tenets the President claims to uphold. It probably contravenes Articles 77, 94 and 130 of the Turkish Criminal Law. It is hardly behaviour expected in a country which is a long-standing member of the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

(I visited Sur on 31st October and 1st November)

Lord Raymond Hylton

November 2015

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