(New York) - The arrest of a human rights advocate on suspicion of links to the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) raises serious concerns that he was targeted because of his legitimate work on human and minority rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrest on December 24, 2009 of Muharrem Erbey, vice president of the national Human Rights Association and chairman of its Diyarbakir branch, was part of a broader operation by the anti-terror police, in which 36 people were detained.
"Muharrem Erbey is well known for his tireless human rights work on behalf of Kurds," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government claims it wants to solve the Kurdish question, but this new wave of arrests shows it is still trying to restrict Kurdish activism and political participation."
The latest wave of arrests came the day after many of those arrested had joined the newly formed pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, following the December 11, 2009 closure of the Democratic Society Party by Turkey's Constitutional Court. Those arrested included a number of democratically elected mayors and officials of the new party.
Erbey was detained at his home in Diyarbakir by anti-terror police of the Diyarbakır Security Directorate. During his interrogation, he was asked about his foreign travel on behalf of the Human Rights Association and meetings he had participated in. On December 26, Erbey was remanded into custody pending trial.
The police also conducted a search of the Diyabakir branch office of the Human Rights Association and confiscated computer hard drives. Lawyers for the Human Rights Association told Human Rights Watch that there were procedural flaws in issuing the search warrant. The Human Rights Association is Turkey's oldest human rights group, founded in 1986.
Erbey was arrested as part of an anti-terror operation on December 24 in 11 Turkish provinces against the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Of the 36 Kurdish political leaders, journalists, and activists detained during the operation, 23 have been indicted and remanded into custody pending trial. Charges were also filed against another five of the 36, but they were released on bail. Nine of those indicted are democratically elected mayors.
The Diyarbakır prosecutor's office has an ongoing investigation against officials and members of the Peace and Democracy Party and its predecessor, the Democratic Society Party, for alleged links with the PKK. Over 100 party officials and members have been arrested since April 2009.
The investigation is under a secrecy order, and the prosecutor's office has not made the evidence against the suspects available to them or their lawyers. They are likely to be charged with "membership in an armed organization" (Turkish Penal Code article 314/2) or having connections with an organization linked to the PKK, known as the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union). The evidence against the accused will only be revealed once they are formally indicted.
Withholding evidence against an accused compromises his ability to prepare his defense, undermining basic due process rights, Human Rights Watch said. For a suspect on remand, it also interferes with the ability to successfully challenge his continued pre-trial detention.
In a separate investigation in May 2009, mainly Izmir-based members of trade unions affiliated with the public sector workers' trade union confederation KESK were detained, with 22 remanded pending trial, on charges of being members of the PKK. The evidence against them referred primarily to their activities in support of such issues as Kurdish-language education and their participation in meetings. Those in pre-trial detention were released from prison at their first trial hearing in November. An honorary board member of the Human Rights Association, Yüksel Mutlu, was among them.
The timing of the newest wave of arrests, the day after many of those arrested joined the newly formed Peace and Democracy Party, and the decision to place the suspects in detention pending trial raises serious concerns that the right to political participation and representation for those involved in pro-Kurdish political activity in Turkey are being restricted, Human Rights Watch said.
"This recent clampdown came just two weeks after the Democratic Society Party was banned and severely limits the right to political representation for the Kurdish minority," Sinclair-Webb said. "Following the Justice and Development Party government's encouraging talk of pursuing democratization in Turkey and of trying to solve the Kurdish problem, prosecutors have turned right around and taken new menacing steps against legal Kurdish political organizations."