Turkey moves to ban pro-Kurdish political party

Leader of the People Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas at the 2015 General Election in Turkey. Photo by Hilmi Hacaloğlu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turkish_general_election,_2015_-_Peoples%27_Democratic_Party_(Turkey)_Selahattin_Demirta%C5%9F.jpg

Turkey's Constitutional Court accepted an indictment seeking the closure of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on June 21. The Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, has the power to rule on the closure of political parties in Turkey.

The 843-page indictment was first filed by the chief prosecutor of Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals, Bekir Şahin, in March 2021 accusing the party of collaborating with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) militant group. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey and by its western allies, including the US and the EU. The indictment also demands that the party's assets be frozen and all 400 plus members of the party be banned from future political activity. HDP denies any such links.

While critics say, Turkey's President and the ruling Justice and Development Party are using the country's top courts to suppress political dissent against its government. Prosecutors and courts have become little more than an instrument of the executive, a party to the power struggles within the state,” said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch in an interview with Bianet.

Following its original submission in March, the Constitutional Court, rejected the indictment, citing incomplete details. Four months later, the prosecutor refiled the case on June 7.

According to Turkish News organization T24, the indictment said:

The activities of the HDP were found to be in violation of the independence of the state, the unity with its country and nation, and human rights. The defendant party has, at the same time, through almost all of its organs, members, and organisations committed these major crimes, while inciting and encouraging them.

The chief prosecutor's office indicted 108 people for initiating fatal protests in 2014. According to reporting by VOA, these protests were sparked by Ankara's refusal to offer support to Kurdish fighters who were besieged by the so-called Islamic State group, in the Syrian town of Kobane on Turkey's border. The most recent arrest took place in March when at least three senior HDP members were detained. Three days earlier, the chief prosecutor filed a case with the Constitutional Court to dissolve the HDP.

HDP is determined to fight the controversial bid to outlaw the party. “We will not let the HDP be disbanded, we will defend the HDP. The HDP will ever grow,” said Mithat Sancar, co-chair of the party, in a statement. The party secured six million votes in the 2018 parliamentary election becoming Turkey's third-largest party in the parliament.

The party has been subject to pressure in recent years. Scores of HDP's senior party members, including former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, were arrested on terrorism-related charges.

According to Human Rights Watch report, the charges against Demirtaş include “membership of a terrorist organization,” “spreading terrorist propaganda,” and many other crimes. If convicted, Demirtaş is facing a life sentence. On November 20, 2018, the European Court “made the rare ruling that there had been a violation of Article 18 of the European Convention, meaning that the extension of Demirtaş’ detention had been pursued for ulterior purposes and as such was an abuse of power.”

The court ordered Demirtaş’ immediate release. Days after the European Court's ruling, the Istanbul regional court of appeal expedited a review of a conviction against Demirtaş concerning a political speech he has made in Istanbul in 2013 and sentenced him to four years and eight months for “spreading terrorist propaganda.” Other members of the party have lost parliamentary seats.

The June 21 ruling came just days after an armed gunman stormed the party's headquarters in Turkey's city of Izmir, killing HDP member Deniz Poyraz. “I entered the building with the intention to kill everyone who might have been in the office at that time indiscriminately and shot around,” said gunman, Onur Gencer, according to Hurriyet Daily News.

The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) which is in a coalition with the ruling AKP, was quick to label Poyraz a terrorist. “I'll tell you who the killed person, Deniz Poyraz, was: She was in charge of the PKK's rural recruitment, a militia accomplice in the ring that sends PKK sympathizers who want to go to the mountains,” said the leader of the party Devlet Bahçeli during a party meeting on June 22.

Meanwhile, the HDP has accused AKP and MHP of the attack in a statement:

Our friend, Deniz Poyraz, was murdered in the attack on our İzmir district building. The instigators and abettors of this brutal attack are the AKP-MHP government and the Ministry of Interior which constantly targets our party and our members.

Pundits say the government is tightening restrictions on HDP ahead of the 2023 election. If HDP is dissolved, then Erdogan has a higher chance of securing an electoral advantage in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, which is traditionally split between the HDP and the AKP.

The US State Department statement issued in response to the attempts to shut down the HDP, noted, doing so, “would unduly subvert the will of Turkish voters, further undermine democracy in Turkey, and deny millions of Turkish citizens their chosen representation.”

Similarly, in an interview with FT, political scientist Sezin Ozey said, “The scapegoating produces the polarisation that distracts from other problems during the coronavirus pandemic,” she said. “Demonising the HDP also helps neuter the rest of the opposition.”

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