As Turkey mourns Sunday’s tragic killings of 13 of its citizens held captive in Iraq by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scrambling to control the narrative as opposition parties blame him for the massacre. This week, he sued the main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for “emotional damages” and attacked Washington’s message of condolence as too equivocal. More seriously (and alarmingly), however, he also stepped up his crackdown on the peaceful Kurdish opposition.

On Monday, as Erdoğan promised vengeance for the shocking killings, Turkish authorities launched a sweeping “counter-terrorism” operation across 40 provinces, detaining 718 people, including prominent Kurdish politicians, for having alleged ties to the PKK. The same day, a court handed down multi-year prison sentences to four journalists from the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem for “PKK membership or propaganda.” As Kurdish lawmakers denounced the government for using the tragedy to unjustly round up peaceful opposition figures, the journalists’ lawyers attributed the court’s “harsh verdict” to the national mood following Sunday’s killings. As if to prove these critics right, Erdoğan’s communications director published a propaganda video that equated Turkey’s democratically elected Kurdish parliamentarians with PKK militants. On Friday, a public prosecutor prepared a summary of proceedings for nine such lawmakers, requesting that parliament lift their immunities so that they can be tried on PKK-related charges.

Ankara’s war with the PKK, designated by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union as a terrorist group, has stifled Kurdish political expression in the country for decades—repressing civil society groups and marginalizing Kurdish parties. Legal reforms and peace negotiations with the PKK in the early 2010s ushered in a period of much-needed relief, opening spaces for Kurdish civil society and helping to move Kurdish politics into the mainstream. But in 2015, when droves of Kurdish voters deserted Erdoğan’s ruling party and elected their own Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to parliament, Erdoğan abruptly suspended the peace talks and began to use the renewed war with the PKK to label nearly all Kurdish political expression as “terrorist propaganda.”

Given Turkey’s overly broad anti-terror laws and heavily politicized judiciary, such slander carries significant consequences. Prosecutors routinely launch terrorism investigations for nonviolent actions such as speeches, articles, and social media posts, and courts convict defendants of terrorism without evidence of violence or incitement. Sixteen-thousand HDP members—including hundreds of elected parliamentarians and mayors—have been detained since 2016 under these conditions. Former HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ have been in prison since 2016 on multiple “terrorism”-related charges. Özgür Gündem was among dozens of pro-Kurdish outlets raided and shut down on charges of terrorism propaganda in recent years. As part of an ongoing terrorism investigation into one of Turkey’s most important Kurdish civil society organizations, the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), authorities in November detained more than 70 people, including politicians, lawyers, journalists, and doctors. 

This new wave of repression comes amidst a growing expectation that the government may actually shut down the HDP. For months, the president’s far-right ally in parliament, Devlet Bahçeli of the National Action Party (MHP), has been calling for the closure. In January, Bahçeli demanded that a public prosecutor investigate and close the HDP based on terrorism allegations, warning that, should the prosecutor fail, the MHP would apply for the closure itself. Erdoğan, who has demonized the HDP for years as a terrorist front but has not yet publicly supported its closure, might cave. In December, he berated the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), whose decisions Turkey is legally bound to follow, for ordering Demirtaş’s release. This month, he echoed Bahçeli’s calls for a new constitution, which could pave the way for the two men to jostle the HDP out of the political equation.

Erdoğan’s escalating repression of peaceful Kurdish political expression has dangerous implications for Turkish democracy. The HDP and its civil society affiliates represent millions of Kurdish citizens who seek political change through democratic participation. They also represent a large faction of non-Kurdish voters who believe in social pluralism—a major shield against Erdoğan’s illiberal efforts to polarize Turkey along ethnic and religious lines. The Turkish government’s assaults threaten the efforts of Turkish and Kurdish people to advocate for nonviolent solutions to Turkey’s conflict with the PKK; for social justice for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities; and for inclusive governance.


Merve Tahiroğlu is POMED’s Turkey Program Coordinator. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.

Photo Credit: HDP English / Facebook