Turkish Kurdistan: Abdullah öcalan its symbol

AKP resorts to brutality

The true intentions of the Turkish government in relation to the ‘Kurdish problem’ have been well and truly revealed, writes Esen Uslu

Last Saturday, July 14, Turkish state forces launched a vicious attack on a demonstration organised by the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) in the eastern city of Diyarbak?r. The protest had been called against the illegitimate isolation imposed since last summer on Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Comrade Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence for ‘terrorism’, has been held on the prison island of ?mral? in the middle of Marmara Sea since 1999. Since last year he has been kept incommunicado from his lawyers and relatives, and government officials have denied him family visits on pretexts insulting to the intelligence of European human rights watchers, such as an “engine problem” with the boat that regularly sails to the island or “insufficiently calm weather”. There is, of course, no need to apologise to Turkish nationalist public opinion, and for the Kurds such excuses were intended to be a poke in the eye.

The BDP’s demonstration was expected to be highly charged, especially following similar protests on March 21 marking the Kurdish new year (Newroz). So the governor of Diyarbak?r, with its Kurdish-dominated population, decided to ban it.

For the uninitiated, the Turkish state is divided into 81 provinces. Each is headed by a governor appointed by the central administration. As a sop to democracy, a locally elected ‘provincial general council’ assists the governor in his (there is yet to be a female one!) duties. However, in reality the toothless provincial council acts as a front for the appointed governor, who commands the local security forces, as well as the finances and the provincial departments of the central government’s ministries. As the topmost official of the central bureaucracy, the governor has the power (with the approval or on the instructions of the central government) to ban a public gathering on very elastic ‘public safety’ grounds.

A similar ban was imposed on the Newroz demonstration. However, realising that his actions could well provoke an ugly street battle, the governor backtracked at the last minute and allowed the demonstration to go ahead. Expecting a similar retreat on July 14, BDP leaders did not heed the ban and continued their preparations for the demonstration. But this time the state was determined and well prepared to stop it at any cost.

Battle of July 14

The ensuing battle started outside the local BDP headquarters in the morning. Party leaders and members of parliament, as well as the mayor of Diyarbak?r, were leaving the building with a group of supporters when they were stopped by the police, and after a brief discussion MPs were allowed to cross the police lines to negotiate with senior officers.

But they had only walked a short distance when they were attacked by the police. After a short while their way was blocked by an armoured vehicle (Toma), which is equipped with a water jet and teargas launcher. When they tried to halt the Toma, which was edging them back, by hitting its bull-catcher with their shoes and hats, they were attacked once more and brutally beaten.

Two women members of parliament were struck by the powerful water jet from short range, and suffered injuries to their eyes and faces. Another female MP, whose husband was killed in an anti-guerrilla attack years ago, suffered a broken leg and burns when she was hit by a teargas canister. Other MPs were beaten and dragged along the street.

That marked the beginning of an all-out attack on the Kurdish demonstrators, which continued all day long. The security forces stopped buses on the approach roads to Diyarbak?r, and forced them to turn back. In many other towns and cities in the region checkpoints were set up in an attempt to prevent demonstrators travelling to Diyarbak?r.

About 87 people were detained, and many other young demonstrators were summarily assaulted: they were forced to strip from the waist up and beaten with rubber batons. Many were held down by police boots on hands, ankles and knees while they were viciously attacked.

So much tear gas was used that stocks were exhausted and additional supplies were airlifted in from neighbouring provinces. Police helicopters, Tomas and other paramilitary vehicles terrorised the inhabitants of the city. Despite all those repressive measures, Kurdish youth continued to gather and fight back against the police. If they were dispersed, they simply regrouped and appeared in another location. The clashes lasted until the early hours of the morning.

The leaders of the BDP and MPs were not even allowed to hold an impromptu press conference, and decided to stage a sit-down protest lasting the whole of the night. That evening three major jails erupted in uprisings, and many cells were set alight. [1]


How did the battle of July 14 actually differ from many similar clashes that have occurred over the last decade? In my estimation it was a blatant and brutal indication of a change in policy on the part of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). To explain how such a conclusion is reached we must look a little back into the history of the Kurdish struggle.

July 14 2012 was an important date for the Kurds, as well as for all democrats in Turkey, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the first hunger strike in Diyarbak?r prison following the 1980 coup.

On that day in 1982, four leading PKK prisoners stood before a military court and defiantly declared that they were starting a fast in response to the brutalities and torture inflicted on them by the regime. Hundreds more prisoners followed them in various prisons. The four prisoners who initiated the protest - comrades Kemal Pir, Hayri Durmu?, Ali Çiçek and Akif Y?lmaz - died as a result of their hunger strike in September of the same year.

1982 was a year of open rebellion by Kurdish prisoners in Diyarbak?r prison. First there was the suicide of comrade Mazlum Do?an, who hanged himself on the occasion of Newroz. Then four prisoners set themselves alight in May.

The hunger strikers selected the day with a reference to the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution, and their defiant speech ended with the words: An azadi an m?r?n! (freedom or death). That slogan later became the battle cry that echoed in the mountains of Kurdistan.

July 14 2012 also marked the first anniversary of the democratic autonomy call of the DTK (Congress for a Democratic Society, an umbrella group of legal mass organisations in Turkish Kurdistan). It followed the new policy line of the Kurdish national liberation movement, which replaced the previous aim of a separate Kurdish state with democratic autonomy within Turkey. The democratic autonomy programme was also addressed to the general population, signifying that the Kurdish movement was the leading opposition force in Turkey, with its all-encompassing democratic platform.

It was also the culmination of new policies adopted by the PKK in the face of the new reality emerging after the Iraq war - especially the formation of an autonomous Kurdish regional government in southern Kurdistan. During those years the PKK formed several legal and semi-legal organisations and parties to reorganise the Kurdish resistance, and massively successful actions brought in a new phase of local power, with election victories in almost all the main cities, as well as a group of Kurdish deputies in parliament. The slogan of the BDP on the streets changed to An azadi an azadi! (Nothing but freedom).

The initial response of the government was restrained, and even some of the most rightwing leaders argued that it was better if the Kurds took part in the “political process of the valleys instead of fighting in the mountains”.

A selected group of Kurdish guerrillas, who had not been previously charged with any crime in Turkey, as well as some refugees who were staying in a refugee camps in Iraq, arrived in Turkey as peace emissaries. They were declared to be recanting former fighters by the hastily assembled courts at border checkpoints, even though they vehemently opposed such a label. However, when they were greeted by thousands of people on the street as victorious members of the resistance, the government began to have second thoughts.

The new policy also led to secret negotiations conducted between representatives of the Turkish government and the PKK leadership, aiming for a peaceful settlement of the so-called ‘Kurdish problem’. These were dubbed the ‘Oslo process’ after the first meeting held in the Norwegian capital under the auspices of Britain’s ubiquitous Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

The negotiations progressed quite rapidly to a stage where a draft memorandum of understanding was prepared by the negotiating teams - it was even claimed that the memorandum resembled the programme of democratic autonomy. However, the government recoiled at the last moment, causing an uproar in the top echelons of the military, judiciary and civilian bureaucracy.

End of ‘Oslo process’

A series of mass arrests starting in 2010 and the ensuing court cases flagged the end of the ‘Oslo process’. Almost every mayor, elected municipal representative and leading member of BDP organisations was arrested. They were accused of ‘aiding and abetting terrorism’ or being a ‘member of a terrorist organisation’. The conduct of the so-called ‘KCK trials’, with their never-ending remand periods and the ban on the use of the Kurdish language, were reminiscent of the military regime days.

On July 14 2011 Turkish armed forces and Kurdish guerrillas clashed in the rural Silvan county in Diyarbak?r province, and the day ended with the death of 13 soldiers, who died in a scrub fire caused by battle. In the aftermath the Turkish army intensified its operations against the guerrillas - precision air raids were launched against selected targets in the Qandil mountains, where the Kurdish guerrilla forces were believed to be based. A brutal isolation regime was also imposed on comrade Öcalan, and the KCK trials were taken to a new level - today even the defendants’ solicitors can be arrested and charged.

The ‘Oslo process’ secret negotiations were leaked to the press. Suddenly the state officials who took part in the negotiations were called before special prosecutors to be questioned for their actions, which were considered an affront to the nationalistic values of the Turkish state. The government was forced to act hastily to save its obedient servants, and rapidly changed the law so that the prosecution of those concerned could only proceed with the prime minister’s approval.

Further changes were made to the criminal law, and the powers of the special criminal courts dealing with terrorism cases were curtailed. Many a convicted fascist murderer who had committed brutal crimes during the 70s, but who were only apprehended after the fall of the military regime, were released early.

So the AKP government, which claims to want to bring to justice those responsible for the atrocities of military rule during the 1980s, as well as the top military brass who took part in the last years of the junta, has actually come to a reconciliation with those forces. Its new policy is based on the belief that it can now win a war - dirty or not - against the guerrillas. It also hopes to pacify the rest of the Kurdish resistance by splitting the national movement.

It is toying with the idea of using the Massoud Barzani regime of Iraqi Kurdistan in a new ‘peacemaking’ initiative, making use of the sympathy enjoyed by the Barzani family among sections of the Kurdish popular opposition to stem the proletarian tide represented by the PKK. The aim is to create a powerful political alternative, bringing former leftwing politicians back from exile, and provoking a split within the BDP, but to date all this has come to nothing.

The government is also stressing plans for the “economic development” of Kurdistan and raising its people’s living standards by redirecting resources. However, a declining economy, as well as growing regional problems which seem beyond the capacity of Turkey to solve, indicate that the prospects for the success of such a policy are not very promising.

All that remains of the government’s changed policy is the use of brutal repression. However, the entire history of the Kurdish conflict has demonstrated that this road leads nowhere. Democracy for the whole region and the peoples inhabiting it is the order of the day, and every attempt to stem the democratic tide will in the end prove futile.


1.There are many images of the clashes in the Turkish media. A revealing six-minute video of the events at the start of the day can be seen at http://en.firatnews.com/index.php?rupel=article&nuceID=4936.