Legal Proceedings against Politicians in Diyarbakir

Multilingualism as a Separatist Crime

Public prosecutors in Turkey are bringing an increasing number of politically motivated court cases against Kurdish local politicians who are standing up for the recognition of the cultural and social rights of the Kurds. By Ömer Erzeren

Public prosecutors in Turkey are bringing an increasing number of politically motivated court cases against Kurdish local politicians in south-east Anatolia who are standing up for the recognition of the cultural and social rights of the Kurds. The charge is always the same, namely the dissemination of separatist propaganda. Ömer Erzeren has the details

Abdullah Demirbaş at the launch of a multilingual children's book in Diyarbakir (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Abdullah Demirbaş, mayor of the district of Sur in Diyarbakir wants the multi-ethnic and multilingual reality of his country to be recognised and accepted

​​There is currently a shortage of organ donations in Turkey. Numerous organisations and the Ministry of Health are running campaigns to counteract this situation. The major of the municipality of Sur in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbaş, wanted to do his bit for the campaign and instructed the city administration to print posters in Turkish and Kurdish encouraging organ donations.

However, instead of sending words of gratitude or recognition, the government sent investigators from the Ministry of the Interior. They came because they considered the printing of posters in Kurdish by the city administration to be an illegal activity.

Denying Turkey's multilingual diversity

These investigations were followed by even more investigations because Demirbaş also used the language spoken by the citizens who elected him for other services offered by the city administration. A study commissioned by the municipality concluded that 72 per cent of the population speaks Kurdish and 24 per cent Turkish. It was also discovered that the mother tongues of the remaining population are Armenian, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, and Arabic.

The mayor defended the multilingual services provided by the municipality in a speech to the European Social Forum. This address was also held against him. Eventually the Ministry of the Interior initiated proceedings to remove him from office. He was then charged by the Supreme Court of Administration and removed from office, as were the members of the council that approved Demirbaş' decisions.

The judges ruled that the multilingual services offered by the city administration were unconstitutional. Demirbaş now plans to bring the matter to the European Court of Human Rights.

"We just want to offer our citizens a better service by addressing them in their language," said Demirbaş, whose official car has been confiscated by the police, "after all, announcements on Turkish Airlines flights are made in Turkish and in English!"

Demirbaş is not only fighting to reverse his deposition, he is also fighting criminal proceedings that have been brought against him for allegedly disseminating "propaganda for a terrorist organization". On the first day of the hearing, he defended himself with the words: "Standing up for a Turkey with multiple identities, cultures, and languages is not separatism!"

Not an isolated case

Demirbaş has not, however, been singled out for this treatment; many other local politicians who are members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) have also had similar experiences.

There are currently a dozen proceedings pending against the Lord Mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir. In one such proceeding he is charged with having made available a municipal ambulance for the funeral of a deceased combatant of the illegal Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Baydemir received 58 per cent of the vote in the last municipal election. Ever since DTP members have been elected mayors in a number of Kurdish cities, local politicians have been put under pressure.

Many of the reform laws that have been passed in recent years have not been implemented in Kurdish regions and a war of attrition is being fought against anyone who tries to exercise these new rights.

Denouncing the DTP as the "fifth column" of the PKK

The general consensus would seem to be that the DTP is the "fifth column" of the PKK. It is completely excluded from the political decision-making process at national level.

The reason for this is that in order to enter parliament, a party must receive at least 10 per cent of the vote. The DTP received over 6 per cent of the vote in the last parliamentary election.

However, despite the marginalization of the DTP mayors and despite the court cases and the intimidation, the region's governors, who represent the central government in Ankara, have reached a kind of understanding and cooperation with the mayors.

The mayors have been in office for years and know and understand the concerns and needs of the citizens. They often act as mediators. When young PKK supporters flexed their muscles in Diyarbakir in March of last year, the governor and the security forces called on the mayor to intervene in order to avoid an escalation of the situation.

Despite the fact that the PKK undoubtedly has a strong influence on the party, the DTP certainly does not take orders from the PKK guerrillas. DTP politicians who are critical of the PKK have gained people's trust as local politicians.

Just how much support there is for the DTP in the Kurdish regions became evident last week at the funeral of Orhan Dogan, a former member of the national parliament, in the city of Cizre. Over 100,000 people came to the city to pay their last respects.

Together with Leyla Zana and other Kurdish MPs, Dogan's immunity was lifted. In 1994 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for engaging in "separatist activities". He spent over ten years behind bars. Following his release, Dogan, who has always distanced himself from the PKK, has been active in the DTP.

Because of the 10-per cent hurdle, the DTP has decided not to run as a party in the parliamentary election that is due to be held in Turkey on 22 July. Instead, 42 of its members will run as "independents" in the various constituencies.

The reason being that independent candidates are not subject to the ten-percent hurdle. The DTP estimates that at least 20 independents will enter the next parliament. They could then re-join the party and form a parliamentary party.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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