Born in Turkey, Worldfocus producer Gizem Yarbil recently reported, along with Bryan Myers, the Signature video Turkey’s Kurds Seek Justice for Unsolved Murders.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Turkey woke up to a newspaper photo of a line of handcuffed Kurds in detention. Among them were several prominent Kurdish elected officials and human rights advocates.
On the same day, in early morning raids conducted in eleven cities in the southeast of the country, Turkish police arrested dozens of members of the recently banned Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), including at least seven local mayors and other politicians. Their alleged crime was to be part of a civil and urban network of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
According to press reports, two of the arrested were prominent human rights workers in the region. One of them was Muharrem Erbey. He is a lawyer and the chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association in Turkey.
I never met Muharrem Erbey in person but talked to him several times on the phone. He helped me on a Signature story producer Bryan Myers and I were working on last May which centered around Diyarbakir and a paramilitary group with links to the Turkish state that were suspected of involvement in kidnappings and killings of Kurds in the region in the 90s.
A former member of this paramilitary group, who now resides in Sweden, came out a few years ago and confessed to taking part in some of the kidnappings and murders in the region. Last summer, he led state authorities to sites that may hold the remains of people who went missing in the 90s. Several sites have been excavated and hundreds of bones have been dug up and sent for DNA testing.
Erbey was deeply involved in these excavations. He was one of the few people allowed on the sites by the authorities when the bones came out of the ground. He was well regarded and respected by the local people, gave voice to those who couldn’t speak up for themselves, and fought bravely for their rights.
So what did Muharrem Erbey do to make state authorities think that he was involved in an urban network of a militant group? According to the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association and confirmed by Erbey’s lawyer, as evidence, authorities pointed to his participation in a workshop to discuss constitutional amendments and a Kurdish Film Festival in Italy; speeches about Kurds in Turkey before the parliaments of Belgium, Sweden and England; and advising the mayor of Diyarbakir, who actually is not among those detained.
I recently spoke with the lawyer for Erbey and other detainees, Sezgin Tanrikulu, who is a human rights advocate himself. He said that the authorities did not give him any firm evidence that these people had any connections to the PKK in any way and that some of the “evidence,” such as in Erbey’s case, participating in a film festival, could apply to thousands of people.
When I was in the southeast of Turkey last May, it was hard not to notice the change the region has been through since the tumultuous days of the 90s when the conflict was at its peak. There was a more peaceful atmosphere and the Kurds here seemed to have real hopes for peace and reconciliation with the Turkish state. The government of the leading Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been engaging in an initiative that opened doors to more reforms and rights for Kurds.
But the latest events in Turkey are reversing this positive trend. On December 11, the Constitutional Court banned the only Kurdish political party in the parliament, which instigated unrest and riots in the region between Kurdish demonstrators and the police. And the same government that has engaged in the reform process for the Kurds has undoubtedly initiated the arrests of these dozens of elected officials and human rights advocates.
The detention of human rights workers and elected officials for being part of an alleged “urban network” of an armed, militant group without any real proof except for speaking in parliaments and participating in film festivals, is an outright abuse of democracy and will undoubtedly stall the peace process in the region.
– Gizem Yarbil
For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.