Pro-Kurdish Former Lawmaker Imprisoned On Terrorism Charges, Growing Concerns Over Turkey’s Violations of Rights and Freedoms

On Monday 21st of December, a Turkish court sentenced former Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Guven to more than twenty-two years in jail for three separate terrorism charges. The sentencing of Guven highlighted a growing concern over Turkey’s violations of fundamental freedoms and rights. In June, Guven of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and two other opposition lawmakers lost their positions and parliamentary immunity after being convicted as a member of a terrorist organization. Reuters reports that the court on Monday sentenced Guven to 14 years and three months in jail on a different charge of membership to a terrorist organization and an additional eight years for spreading terrorist propaganda. Aljazeera reports that Guven was not present at the court hearing, and a sentence was ordered for her immediate arrest. Political opposition to Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) accuses them of suppressing dissent by jailing opposition members and critics and interfering with the independence of judicial proceedings. With the memory of the 2016 failed coup attempt still fresh, the government counters that the country’s threats justify its actions. However, human rights groups and Western allies have raised the alarm and condemned the continued government crackdown and jailing of opposition officials and members.


Aljazeera reports that Guven became well known in 2018 after she led a 200-day hunger strike to end the isolation of a jailed Kurdish leader and founder of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Guven’s hunger strike demanded Ocalan receive regular access to family and lawyers. Reuters reports the strike ended at the request of Ocalan after he met with his lawyers for the first time since 2011. The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union (E.U.), and the United States (U.S.). The original goal of the PKK sought to establish an independent Kurdish state and in 1984, began an armed uprising against the Turkish government. Since then, the PKK shifted its attention to attaining autonomy and gaining the protection of political and cultural rights. The International Crisis Group estimates that since the beginning of the conflict in 1984 between the PKK and the government, 30,000-40,000 people have been killed.


The Guardian reports that one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million population is Kurdish. There is a heavy Kurdish population within Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. Despite making up a large ethnic group, they have never achieved a permanent nation-state of their own. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, provisions were made for an independent Kurdish State. Still, they fell through, leaving Kurds with a minority status where they resided. In Turkey, the Kurds have received discriminatory treatment by the government for generations. BBC News states that due to uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, “many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted, and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated “Mountain Turks.”


From this discrimination, the PKK emerged as one of the radicalized nationalist groups dedicated to establishing an independent state, Kurdistan, ready to employ violence and force for its cause. Britannica notes that in the 1990s, the PKK shifted its attention from seeking an independent state towards attaining autonomy and equal protection within Turkey. Despite several attempts at peace negotiations, they eventually faltered. BBC reports that Turkish parties then targeted and arrested members of legal Kurdish parties, usually on terrorist charges. The HDP, as the main pro-Kurdish party and one of the largest opposition parties to the government, has been accused of having links to the PKK. Aljazeera reports that the government has jailed dozens of mayors and other HDP officials in the past year over the party’s suspected links to the PKK. However, the HDP vehemently denies any ties.


The opposition maintains that these accusations by Erdoğan and the AK party are attempts to suppress any dissent. The Guardian reports that the HDP states that 45 mayors out of 65 municipalities that the party won in the 2019 local elections were removed from office to date, with at least 21 imprisoned over accusations of links outlawed PKK. According to Reuters, the HDP has expressed that Guven’s verdict harms all Kurds and opposition members and that the independence of Turkey’s judiciary is in question, “Judicial bodies have shown once again that they are acting in line with the interests of the ruling party. We do not recognize this unlawful, inimical punishment.” The HDP further stated, as quoted by Peoples Dispatch, “Leyla Güven is a person of struggle who devoted her life to peace; she is a monument of honor (sic). Neither Leyla Güven nor we will give up the struggle due to prison sentences and arrests.”


Turkey’s behaviour sentencing and jailing opposition members have been ruled as violations of fundamental rights by European nations. A few days after Guven’s arrest, ABC News reports that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey must immediately release Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the HDP, critic, and presidential contender who ran twice against Erdoğan. While Erdoğan accuses Demirtas as a terrorist with links to Kurdish insurgents, the ECHR ruled that Demirtas’ four-year imprisonment since 2016 violated his rights on five fundamental rights categories, including the freedom of expression. However, as ABC notes, Erdoğan has opposed the ruling, believing that the court has employed double standards and stating that the ruling does not bypass the Turkish judiciary and their courts will only evaluate the ECHR decisions.


Alongside the seemingly arbitrary detention of pro-Kurdish party members, Turkey has also detained and limited the right to assembly and association of judges, lawyers, teachers, human rights defenders, and journalists. As the Human Rights Watch organization notes, these charges often lacked compelling evidence of criminal activity related to terrorism or the 2016 coup attempt. The lack of credible evidence for the charges to hold demonstrates a lack of judicial independence. Due to its worsening human rights record, the E.U. determined that Turkey did not meet the eligibility requirements, such as preserving democratic governance and respecting human rights, for membership. In 2019, an E.U. committee formally suspended E.U. accession negotiations with Turkey. The condemnation of Turkey’s human rights violations by its western allies is not enough; despite tensions to the U.S. and western allies, Turkey remains a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally. While the U.S. has struggled to maintain a balance and keep Turkey as a regional security partner, it recently announced it would impose sanctions after Turkey attained a Russian missile defence system in violation of a U.S. sanctions law. In a similar vein, the E.U. has contemplated issuing sanctions for Turkey’s continued conflicts in neighbouring countries.


While sanctions’ efficiency can be debated, sanctions send a much clearer and enforceable message that certain behaviour will not be accepted. Since Turkey benefits widely from membership in various international organizations, economic sanctions, aid with conditions, and limited participation in the organizations can be a useful tool to assert political pressure if consistently maintained and respected. Through this type of political pressure, an envoy specializing specifically in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict needs to be employed to initiate peace talks between the government and the PKK. Direct talks with PKK leaders and even the imprisoned Ocalan may prove beneficial for an end to violence.


Willingness to the ceasefire is demonstrated by a 2010 BBC report, where a leader of a Kurdish rebel group stated he would be willing to disarm under United Nation supervision as long as Turkey agreed to end the attack on Kurdish civilians, the arrest of Kurdish politicians, and the securement of greater political and cultural rights. Additionally, political pressure needs to push for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission between the government and the Kurdish civilians who have been affected by the ongoing conflict and the generational government violations. Western leadership needs to maintain the stance that if Turkey wants to maintain relations, Turkey needs to peacefully resolve the Kurdish conflict, as well as acknowledge and address all its domestic and international violations.


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