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Backgrounder on Repression of the Kurds in Turkey

Approximately one fifth of Turkey's 63 million people are of Kurdish ethnicity. Their traditional homeland is in the mountainous southeastern provinces, though perhaps half of Turkey's Kurds now live in Istanbul and other cities in the west of the country. Kurds are most sharply distinguished from the rest of the population by their mother tongue--the Kurdish family of languages--which is linguistically very different from Turkish. Many rural Kurds, and particularly the women (since they are not required to leave their village for military service), speak only Kurdish.

Denied political, and cultural rights, Kurds have been the principal victims of the Turkish state's excesses since the military coup of 1980. (It should be noted that, ironically--or tragically--the majority of victims of PKK abuses have also been Kurds.) Kurds are not targeted by the security forces because of their ethnicity per se. Many Kurds who align themselves closely with the Turkish state have been elected to parliament or hold high political office. However, any attempt to assert political or cultural rights based on Kurdish identity is looked upon as treason and as a threat to the very foundations of the Turkish state--and punished accordingly.

The denial of cultural and political rights has generated a long-standing sense of grievance among some sectors of the Kurdish minority, and this has made them a fertile source of recruits for illegal radical armed organizations--in particular the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which began attacks on gendarmerie posts and other state installations in 1984. These attacks in turn provoked fierce repression--mass arrests followed by interrogation under torture, and trials in martial law courts and State Security Courts which fell far short of international standards of justice.

Government and military officials of the Turkish Republic have even admitted that they are often unable to identify who is a PKK activist in the southeast. As a result, the population as a whole has often been targeted and has endured two decades of terrible hardship, instability, and fear. Kurdish villagers in particular have been subjected to frequent security raids in which they have been abused, tortured, and even "disappeared," or extrajudicially executed. Many commentators agree that the crude and wholesale methods used by the military only serve to boost PKK recruitment.

In the mid-1980s, in an attempt to isolate those Kurdish communities that were offering tactical support for the PKK, the Turkish government began to arm Kurdish villagers as "provisional village guards." Although village guards were theoretically set up to defend villages from attack, the Turkish security forces have used them as auxiliaries for raids into neighboring villages. Village guard service is in theory voluntary, but any village that refused to join the paramilitary system was suspected of being sympathetic to the PKK and therefore subjected to frequent security raids, or forcibly evacuated and burned to the ground. On the other hand, enrollment in the village guard system automatically puts that community on the hit-list for attack by the PKK. There is no middle ground for the Kurdish peasant, who is completely trapped between the two sides to the conflict.

The village of Nurettin serves as a good example of how the state used the village guard system to displace those villagers who refused to join. The 1994 Human Rights Watch Report "Forced Displacement of Ethnic Kurds from Southeastern Turkey" documents how in November 1993, the security forces burned about twenty of the three hundred houses in the village, because they were allegedly PKK sympathizers. After local elections in March 1994, approximately one third of the villagers from the "Burukans" tribe became village guards and then forced all those who did not join to leave the village. By August 1994, most villagers in Nurettin who were not Burukans had been forced to flee, and their houses had been destroyed.

Due to obstacles to reporting from the emergency region, the program of village destruction has gone underreported in the Turkish and world press. In July 1997, then Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit announced that 3,185 settlements had been completely or partially depopulated since fighting broke out in the region in August 1984. This has not been an orderly evacuation procedure, but a punitive measure, frequently conducted with considerable brutality, and villages are still being cleared. The exact number of displaced is unknown because no independent group has been able freely to conduct research in the region. In any case, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish villagers from the southeast have been displaced to shanty-towns throughout Turkey.

Gendarmes who have been subject to PKK attack have frequently carried out reprisals - in some cases outright massacres - on any nearby villages that refused to join the village guard corps. In 1994 alone, more than a hundred people, mainly Kurdish villagers, "disappeared" after being taken into custody by gendarmes or police.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the PKK itself committed many massacres of Kurdish men, women, and children in attacks on "collaborator" villages. In "Forced Displacement of Ethnic Kurds from Southeastern Turkey" (1994), Human Rights Watch documented numerous PKK raids on villages. In January 1994, for example, the PKK raided the villages of Akyurek and Ormancik in the Savur district, Mardin, and killed four village guards, six children, and nine women. In May 1994, during a raid on the village of Ebeduk in the Tercan district of Erzincan, the PKK killed nine individuals. Several examples are also given of villagers who were executed by the PKK. In July 1994, the PKK executed two alleged "denouncers" in the village of Guzelagac. In September 1994, the PKK executed six teachers in Darikent village of the Mazgirt district of Tunceli.

Parliamentary politics barred
Meanwhile, attempts to organize and articulate the Kurdish identity through parliamentary politics have been consistently frustrated. Since 1971, every party that has explicitly voiced the need to tackle the problems of the Kurdish minority has been closed down as "separatist" under Article 81 of the Law on Political Parties which forbids mention of racial or religious minorities. In the 1990s alone, eight political parties were shut down on these grounds. The People's Labor Party (HEP) and its successor parties have been subjected to relentless persecution by the state and its security forces for over a decade.

HEP scored notable successes in the 1991 election, winning twenty-two parliamentary seats. However, when HEP deputies went to take up their parliamentary seats, there was a near-riot in the assembly. Leyla Zana, a HEP deputy, appeared wearing the "Kurdish colours" (red, yellow and green) in her hair and announced in Kurdish that she was taking her parliamentary oath in Turkish under protest. Many of those enraged by this act mistakenly believed that these were the colours of the PKK. The Ankara State Prosecutor, who drew up the indictment against Zana, was among those who reacted strongly to the incident. As HEP began to be perceived as the political wing of the PKK, it became very dangerous to be a local HEP official. Brutal raids on the party's offices were carried out with monotonous regularity, and those detained were, almost without exception, tortured.

Kurdish political leaders have also been murdered. Fifty-seven members and officials of HEP and its successors DEP and HADEP have been killed since 1991. In September 1993, the DEP parliamentary deputy Mehmet Sincar was shot dead in broad daylight. The killers were never arrested, and many believe the security forces were behind the killings. There is a good deal of evidence to support such a claim. Muhsin Melik, president of the Urfa branch of DEP, was attacked outside his office in Urfa in June 1994. Before he died, he made a statement in front of witnesses that he recognized his assailants as police officers who had been following him for some time.

In March 1994, the Ankara State Security prosecutor began to intensify the legal assault on DEP, and party leaders Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, and Selim Sadak (among others) were arrested and put on trial as supporters of the PKK. After a trial that was a travesty of justice, and in spite of the fact that none of the four had ever been accused of participation in acts of violence, they were given sentences of fifteen years of imprisonment which they are currently serving at Ankara Closed Prison.

HADEP, the successor to DEP, has suffered similar attacks. Its members have been prosecuted, often on trumped-up charges, and have faced police harassment, arbitrary detention, threats and torture, and even summary execution. Despite unsuccessful efforts to ban HADEP before the April 1999 elections, it scored a result comparable to its 1991 showing. Because the threshold for allocation had since been raised from 5 percent to 10 percent (largely in order to keep HADEP out of parliament), HADEP did not win seats in parliament. However, in local elections held the same day, HADEP won thirty-seven local offices.

In spite of its often-repeated calls for peace and its public rejection of political violence, HADEP is widely perceived to be sympathetic to the PKK, an organization heartily detested by much of the Turkish public. Following the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in Italy in November 1998, HADEP buildings were attacked by mobs. Two HADEP members died as a result of beatings in police custody.

The Democratic Mass Party (DKP) -- which places a peaceful and democratic solution of the Kurdish question at the center of its program -- not only rejected political violence, but also strongly and publicly criticized the PKK for its methods. Nevertheless, the DKP was closed down by the Constitutional Court for "separatism" in 1998, raising serious doubts about the possibility of establishing a party with a Kurdish discourse, no matter how moderate, that will be acceptable to the guardians of the Turkish state.

Restrictions on the spoken and written word
These parliamentary political parties were all closed down in spite of the fact that none of them ever proposed any territorial separation for Turkey's Kurds. Rather, they focused on cultural rights. Pressure in this area has achieved some small gains, but not sufficient to permit full and confident exercise of the Kurdish identity. For example, the traditional Kurdish new year festival of Nevruz was recognized as a public holiday in 1993, but scores of people attempting street celebrations in Istanbul and other cities were detained and held in police custody for several days, in some cases being subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

The Kurdish language is naturally a key issue. It appears that the military junta of 1980 had intended to expunge the language altogether. In October 1983, it passed Law 2932, which specifically outlawed all communication in Kurdish without actually referring to the language explicitly. This law was repealed in 1991, probably as a result of the crisis in Iraq, which raised international awareness of the situation of Kurds.

Now, although Kurdish is spoken more or less freely on the streets of Turkey's cities, its use is prohibited in education, politics, and the broadcast media. Education in languages other than Turkish is forbidden by the Constitution, but special dispensation can be made by the National Security Council (a body dominated by the military which "advises" the civilian government). Instruction is currently permitted in English, French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese, but not Kurdish. A legally registered foundation, the Kurdish Cultural and Research Foundation (Kurt-Kav) fought a two-year battle to provide Kurdish language instruction at its headquarters in Istanbul, but the language course was declared illegal in May 1998.

Radio or television broadcasting in languages other than Turkish is effectively barred by the 1994 RTUK broadcasting law. Nevertheless, the "Kurdish reality" tends to leak through. Kurdish language music - provided that it is not overtly political - seems to be tolerated, and the army's southeastern radio station "Voice of the Tigris" is sufficiently pragmatic, in trying to win the hearts and minds of the local population, to broadcast in the two main Kurdish dialects as well as Turkish and Turkmen. Interviews in Kurdish in news stories from southeastern Turkey are shown on national television with Turkish subtitles. Nevertheless, there are no legally operating radio or television stations with an explicitly Kurdish character, and attempts to found such networks have been shut down.

Only a handful of small weekly newspapers or journals publish entirely or partly in Kurdish, even though there are no legal restrictions. Inevitably, magazines publishing in Kurdish tend to analyze the broader issues surrounding the Kurdish minority and will always come to the notice of at least the press prosecutor, and very likely the police Anti-Terror Branch. The fate of "Hevi," a bilingual Turkish-Kurdish weekly, is emblematic of the pressure such publications face. Hevi takes a moderate political line. Yet the majority of issues of Hevi have been confiscated on the grounds of allegedly separatist statements; criminal prosecutions have been brought against writers and the editor; and the editor currently faces an eighteen-month prison sentence, pending appeal. Most prosecutions relate to Turkish language articles rather than Kurdish ones.

In fact, writing about Kurdish politics in any language is much more dangerous than merely writing in Kurdish. The Kurdish-owned daily Ozgur Gundem (Free Agenda) was published from May 1992 until it was closed on April 1994. In those two years, six of its reporters and twelve of its distributors were killed by assassins believed to be linked to the state. Two journalists "disappeared" and one reporter remains confined to a wheelchair as a result of gunshot wounds that damaged his spine.

Political journalism in southeast Turkey remains a dangerous profession. In November 1998 Mehmet Eren, a reporter for Hevi, was detained while covering a hunger strike at the HADEP headquarters in Diyarbakir. According to the May report of Reporters sans Frontieres, he was blindfolded and taken to the riot squad section of the city's police headquarters where his detention was only acknowledged after five days. He reported being stripped, threatened with rape, beaten on the testicles, and soaked with cold water. He was held incommunicado for nine days in all. As a result of the torture, he suffered a groin hernia. Police officers told him that he was being subjected to torture because he was "putting out propaganda for the Kurds and working for a Kurdish newspaper."

For more information, please contact:
In Turkey, Jonathan Sugden: 90-532-598-0771 (cell phone)
In New York, Holly Cartner: 212-216-1277