ANKARA: Turkish authorities on Friday ordered the arrest of 82 dissident politicians, women’s rights defenders, and civil society activists in connection with violent protests six years ago.
Current and former members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), were among those being rounded up over demonstrations in 2014 against the Daesh siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani.
Individuals arrested included Ayhan Bilgen, the co-mayor of the eastern province of Kars, former deputies Sirri Sureyya Onder, Ayla Akat Ata, and Altan Tan, ex-party spokesperson, Gunay Kubilay, and HDP central executive board member Alp Altinors.
At the time of the protests, in which 37 people died, Ankara blamed the HDP for inciting demonstrators to take to the streets.
The move has met with regional and international criticism with Turkish government opponents claiming the arrests were politically motivated and a follow-up to the jailing four years ago of the party’s former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, the director of Human Rights Watch Turkey, told Arab News that the only pretext Ankara had found for keeping Demirtas locked up was an old investigation file. “It focuses on the Oct. 6 to 8, 2014 violent protests in the southeast and attempts to pin responsibility on Demirtas and the HDP, as if the party could have foreseen the violence that would ensue,” she said.
Chief Public Prosecutor Yuksel Kocaman, who has been accused of deliberately delaying the indictment into Demirtas’ case, recently sparked controversy by visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential palace with his new wife shortly after their wedding ceremony.
Kocaman’s meeting with Erdogan led to debate about the independence of the country’s judiciary.
Sinclair-Webb said one of the aims of Friday’s operation could have been to support the case against Demirtas in advance of an anticipated European Court of Human Rights ruling which was expected to demand his release.
“A second motivation for this operation is of course to intimidate and obstruct the HDP,” she added.
Experts pointed out that the government’s latest action was designed to further weaken the HDP ahead of any snap elections and provoke division among opposition groups over the arrests.
Out of a total of 65 HDP mayors who won in last year’s local elections, 47 have been detained on terror-related charges and replaced by government-appointed officials.
Gursel Tekin, a prominent lawmaker from the main opposition CHP, said the arrests aimed to criminalize the HDP along with the democratic and political space it occupied.
“The Turkish president has further polarized society and expects a benefit in return. Such a turn destroys the peace and welfare of 83 million citizens in this county,” Tekin added.
Amnesty International Turkey campaigner, Milena Buyum, told Arab News: “Detaining individuals who could simply be called to make statements in highly mediatized dawn raids undermines their right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.”
She said the latest wave of arrests raised concerns that Turkish authorities may be seeking to create new reasons to keep Demirtas in prison.
“The ongoing detention of HDP members and civil society actors further signals the growing pressure of the government over political opposition and critical voices.
“Prosecution and detention of politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and critical voices notably for terrorism-related offenses constitutes a pattern of repression and threatens the very core human rights principles in the country,” Buyum added.
Separately, an 80-year-old inmate imprisoned for holding a Muslim memorial service in Kurdish, died on Wednesday despite calls for delaying his conviction because of his illness.