ISTANBUL: The Turkish government’s silence on the discovery of listening devices in the offices of an opposition party has caused concern, with a human rights lawyer saying that such wiretaps revealed a “serious and deep-rooted illegality.”
Dozens of bugs were found hidden in lamps and sockets across 40 district offices belonging to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Istanbul, and are believed to be a government attempt to spy on its political activities.
The wiretapping devices were discovered when party officials tried to use a triple plug socket during a press conference. The device was found when they realized the socket was broken. The HDP has demanded that Turkish prosecutors launch an investigation, but a legal process has yet to start.
“The wiretapping concerns the third largest party in parliament, and the law on political parties as well as the constitution consider political parties an integral part of democratic political life,” human rights lawyer Erdal Dogan told Arab News. “Installing such bugging devices is unacceptable from the perspective of (the) rule of law in a country. Wiretapping legal political parties in a so-called democratic society and the ongoing crackdown against their political activities mean a serious and deeply-rooted illegality and aim at restricting public opposition.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses the HDP of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which launched an insurgency against the state in 1984 and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. The HDP rejects the accusation.
The HDP has been subjected to a years-long crackdown by the government, with its leaders and mayors being jailed over terror charges and replaced with government-appointed trustees. The closure of the HDP sparks debate in Turkey and its offices are the focus of regular police raids.
HDP deputy parliamentary group chair Meral Danis Bestas remarked on the government’s radio silence about the bugging discovery, telling a press conference on Dec. 9: “This is acceptance, this is acknowledgment. This means, ‘We have eavesdropped on them.’ If it doesn't, then they should respond to our statements.”
The Interior Ministry has denied the allegation, while intelligence agencies have not commented on it.
Other opposition parties, such as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Islamist breakaway Felicity Party, are also worried about unlawful government monitoring.
The president of the Felicity Party Temel Karamollaoglu said that he believed their phones and meeting venues were also tapped. Lawmaker Aytun Ciray, from the Iyi Party, criticized the silence of pro-government news outlets over the wiretapping scandal.
“US former President (Richard) Nixon had to resign just over a similar scandal. Let sleeping dogs lie,” he said.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently said that his phone was bugged. But this claim was rejected by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who said the statements were aimed at changing the political agenda although Soylu’s phone was wiretapped two years ago.
Necdet Ipekyuz, the HDP deputy for the southeastern province of Batman, said the discovery had everyone worried.
“Everybody is scared of talking on the phone for fear of being listened to by officials,” he told Arab News. “It is such a strong example to show to what extent this atmosphere of fear has become widespread in the country.”
Ipekyuz said that if the HDP hired a professional firm to unearth bugs in their offices a fully fledged museum of wiretapping devices could be opened.
“In case you ever go to a local branch of HDP in provinces or in small towns, be sure that you will see a small car waiting in front of the building with wiretapping equipment on it,” he added.
HDP lawmakers insisted they were conducting their activities on a legal and transparent basis.
“Such attempts mean to criminalize and illegalize our party … This is a serious problem that touch all opposition figures, not only the HDP,” Ipekyuz said.
The use of wiretapping instruments was commonplace in the past among the government’s rivals, who placed bugs in state offices to leak documents to the media or even to use them for blackmail.
Erdogan's encrypted phone was illegally wiretapped for 21 months in 2014.