Kurdish Activist Takes On Turkey's Descent into Extremism

Abdullah Demirbas risks his life to promote ethnic and religious unity.

Abdullah Demirbas, Kurdish human rights activist and twice-elected former mayor of the Sur municipality in Diyarbakir, has long been targeted by Turkish authorities who apparently view him as a threat to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s determination to “re-Islamify” his nation. "I would like to emphasize that we believe in that inter-religious and intercultural dialogue a will bring communities together in this century,” Demirbas told his lawyer, Ms. Irina Tsukerman, while he languished in prison.

Turkish officials saw it differently. They apprehended Demirbas on Aug. 5, 2015,  and charged him with financing terror and being a member of a terrorist organization, according to his daughter, Berfin Demirbas. Yet a Sept.16 article published in The Armenian Weekly reveals the real motivation behind Demirbas’s detainment. "This latest arrest comes amid charges against a number of Kurdish politicians, following the June 7 parliamentary elections that saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lose its majority, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) successfully surpassed the minimum 10-percent threshold required to gain representation in the Turkish Parliament,” the paper explains. "The AKP subsequently failed to form a government.”
 
As a result, snap elections will be held on Nov. 1. In the meantime, Turkish authorities have allegedly been conducting a campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), bringing a number of Kurdish centers and villages under siege. Turkish officials insist they are attacking ISIS strongholds, but many believe the effort is aimed at provoking violence, even to the point of civil war, in order to undermine the HDP before the election takes place.
 
A Sept. 8 press release from the Kurdish National Congress (KNK) gave additional weight to these assertions. They insist a series of coordinated mob attacks and lynchings were precipitated Sept. 6-8, targeting hundreds of Kurdish villages in Western Turkey. Turkish police were accused of participating in the carnage. “The mobs are organizing themselves across social media, forming groups and attacking homes known to belong to Kurdish families,” the statement read. “Attacks on 128 HDP offices have occurred with HDP signs and slogans ripped off and replaced with the Turkish flag. Other offices have been set on fire.”
 
HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas accused the AKP, President Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of making the decision to "start this war and intensify it,” further insisting the crisis was manufactured by AKP’s loss of majority status in the June election. Regime critic Garo Paylan, one of three Armenian Members of Parliament in Turkey, echoed that assertion, insisting Turkish authorities refused to intervene when HDP offices were attacked. “Police are just watching…what’s being broken there is our hope of living together,” Paylan told the BBC.
 
During the unrest, Diyarbakir’s Surp Giragos Armenian Church sustained damage. Demirbas was an active participant in the Church’s reconstruction in 2011. He also presided over the official inauguration of Diyarbakir’s “Monument of Common Conscience” on Sept. 12, 2013, during which he offered an apology on behalf of the Kurds for their participation in the Armenian genocide that took place in 1915. "We have learnt lessons from our history... And as children of this people, we clearly say this out loud: Despite the sovereigns that put us through all those sufferings, we will live together,” he stated. "We will not make one another suffer any more... In this sense, we criticize our [own history] before humanity, peoples and faiths.” 
 
That admission conflicted with Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. Beginning in 2005 it became illegal "to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation, or Turkish government institutions.” Last April, Erdogan revealed the suppressive nature of that law and its attempt to whitewash Turkish history, taking the nations of France, Germany, Russia and Austria to task for describing the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians as “genocide.” Erdogan insisted those nations supported "claims constructed on Armenian lies.”
 
Demirbas’s latest arrest was not his first. After his first election as mayor in 2004, he faced dozens of investigations for attempting to establish a multi-lingual municipality service that ostensibly breaches the equity principle of the Turkish constitution. In 2008 he was one of several Turkish politicians targeted for Kurdish-language usage. His “crimes” consisted of printing a children’s book and tourist brochures in Kurdish, for which he was accused of misusing municipal resources. Accusations of misusing his position also followed his granting of a blessing in Kurdish while officiating at a wedding ceremony. And when Demirbas suggested his district should employ Kurdish-speaking phone operators and print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, charges of aiding the PKK, a Turkish-designated terrorist organization, were leveled. 
 
As a result Demirbas was detained on December 24, 2009 and put in detention for five months for his ostensible links to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban wing of the outlawed PKK. He was released in 2010 due to health problems that plague him to this day. Speaking to the Hurriyet Daily News in 2012, Demirbas referred to the 74 ongoing prosecutions against him, most for multi-lingual municipal services, and the 486 years in total prison sentences being sought in regard to those probes. He also accused Erdogan of hypocrisy. “We face a very strange situation,” he said at the time. "When the prime minister speaks Kurdish on TRT 6 [the state-owned channel that broadcasts in Kurdish], they call it a revolutionary development. But when we put multi-lingual signboards around the city our move was considered as a crime. Interestingly, some acts that are legal for the government are illegal for us,” he added.
 
Attorney Tsukerman further illuminates Demirbas’s current dilemma. "Mr. Demirbas had a plan to restore a number of religious minority sites in his town of Diyarbakir, including a synagogue, Armenian churches, and Yezidi shrines,” she explained in an email to Frontpage. "Mr. Demirbas was known for these activities not only locally but internationally and with many different minority groups. He had received an EU grant to continue his work. Mr. Demirbas gained notoriety for daring to apologize to Armenian and Assyrian groups for the role Kurds have played in the massacres perpetrated by the Ottomans. He quickly became a hero for the Armenians, but that created a divisive effect in light of the rising xenophobia and extreme nationalism being whipped up by the administration.” 
 
Nonetheless he persisted, bringing a delegation of Christians and Muslims to the Vatican for an interfaith visit with Pope Francis. The Pope returned the favor, asking Demirbas to accompany him when he visited Turkey last December. 
 
Tsukerman notes Demirbas’s latest arrest followed his visits to Tel Aviv and Hebrew University, where he participated in a series of seminars with Professor Ofra Bengio, an expert on the Middle East and Kurdish issues, and Armenia, where he participated in the 6th Pan Armenian games and met with the president Serzh Sargsyan. "He believes that it is his visit to Israel and Armenia that was the last straw that caused his arrest, though the timing of it is more than a coincidence,” Tsukerman explained.
 
While he was incarcerated, Demirbas’s medical condition, deep vein thrombosis that can lead to possibly fatal blood clots in the lungs, continued to plague him. As a result his daughter created a personal appeal for his release and posted it on change.org, where it gathered 12,000 signatures. “I am reaching out to you as someone whose father is imprisoned and under risk of death,” it stated. "My father is ill and is currently in jail. We feel that he is basically being condemned to die in jail and that his continued incarceration is an invasion of his right to life. As his family, we are most worried and demand that he be released.”
 
The petition further demanded the state take responsibility for "the lives of those it has incarcerated—the individuals whose basic rights and liberties have been denied behind cement walls and prison bars. Yet, the state is leaving more than 130,000 sick inmates to die through the politics of violence and massacre, as well as the pain of isolation in the prison system.”
 
The effort was successful. Last week Turkish officials released Demirbas following an appeal by his lawyers based on his faltering health condition, that may now include gangrene and emboli, reports Turkey’s Bianet news service. According to his daughter, he has been transferred to Dicle University hospital in Diyarbakir for treatment.
 
Nonetheless, Tsukerman explains his ordeal remains ongoing, noting that his movements remain “heavily monitored,” his charges “remain undisclosed” and that the prosecutor has twice tried to remand him to prison, “but the judge overruled.” Demirbas is "an innocent man, whose peaceful and uniting ideology heavily clashes with the current actions by the administration and the increasingly conservative and suspicious outlook among many parts of the country, that is being courted by President Erdogan prior to the elections on November 1,” Tsukerman insists. "There is little surprise that heroic, idealistic individuals like Mr. Demirbas become scapegoats to these sentiments.”
 
He is not alone. At last week’s terror attack in Ankara, targeting a largely pro-Kurdish and pro-HDP "Labor, Peace and Democracy” demonstration, 97 people were killed and 248 were wounded, further exacerbating the political divide in that nation. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas accused Erdogan of presiding over a “mafia state” responsible for the atrocity, while Erdogan dismissed Demirtas as a “pretty boy.” Previously, Erdogan had insisted Demirtas would flee to the PKK stronghold in Qandil, Iraq if given the chance to do. 
 
Prime Minister Davutoglu believes either Kurdish rebels or ISIS is responsible for the carnage. Yet this latest attack is the third bombing of a Kurdish-linked political gathering in recent months. Four people were killed HDP rally in Diyarbakir on June 5, and 34 were killed in the border town of Suruc on July 20. Moreover the fight between the Turkish government the PKK has been ongoing since 1984, claiming over 40,000 lives.
 
In 2014, Demirbas bemoaned the plight of his people, and offered a seemingly prescient view of Turkey’s future. "Humans die once," he said. "But for Kurds … we die every day. I don’t see things getting better.” 
 
The Nov. 1 election may prove or disprove that assertion. Regardless, Demirbas’s story "is an antidote to violence, extremism, and intolerance that plagues and fractures the region," Tsukerman notes. "He is a Muslim who chooses to build strong relations with Jews, Christians, and all other groups despite the fact that such activity presents a direct risk to his life."

 

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