A government-backed campaign to strip nine Kurdish MPs of their immunity from prosecution could take Turkey back to the future in its decades-long conflict over Kurdish rights.
In the 1990s, fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels in the country’s southeast claimed over 40,000 lives, and led to the displacement or imprisonment of thousands of citizens. Now, amid the worst violence in more than a decade, many observers fear that ethnic Kurds’ rights may again be sharply curtailed in the interest of national security.
Pressure to lift the Kurdish MPs’ immunity has been building since the group was filmed in late August embracing alleged fighters from the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after the fighters stopped the deputies’ convoy on a road in the southeastern Hakkari region.
The embrace follows a 14-month-long period of increasing violence that has resulted in the deaths of 700 Turkish soldiers and PKK fighters. The death toll has heightened political pressure on officials in Ankara to adopt a tougher line toward anyone suspected of fraternizing with the PKK.
"You will either serve the people who have voted for you, or serve your armed masters,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned the deputies in a fiery September 9 speech in Istanbul. The ultimatum followed an earlier statement by Erdoğan that he had consulted with the judiciary over prosecuting the deputies.
"I believe the justice system will do what is necessary. And then we will do what is necessary, if the job falls to us," he said in another speech last week.
Lifting the deputies’ immunity, a move that requires a parliamentary vote, and the prospect of their imprisonment would be a significant escalation in Turkey’s legal crackdown against the government’s ethnic Kurdish critics, warned political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University.
"It would mean the end of the political process," Aktar said, citing the estimated 2.5 million people who voted for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Development Party (BDP). “There will be more alienation of the Kurds. This alienation among the youngsters is already there. I think we may end up alienating even integrated Kurds, who … are voting for the BDP.”
Parliamentary members of a pro-Kurdish party last lost their immunity in 1994; all four deputies were subsequently convicted of links to terrorism and served 10 years in prison.
The BDP deputies fear they face the same fate as their colleagues in the 1990s -- arrest and jail. They insist that Erdoğan, under fire for the uptick in PKK-related violence, is misrepresenting the Hakkari incident for political gain.
"They talked to us and we talked to them and they gave us a hug,” BDP deputy Ertugrul Kürkçü told journalists on September 10 in reference to the PKK fighters. “What can we do? We reacted like a civilized person. Maybe some of us had more smiling faces than others, but this is not a matter for the judiciary. This is a matter of culture, not even politics.”
Kürkçü gave his interview during a recess in the Istanbul court trial of 44 Kurdish journalists charged with working for the PKK.
The government's tolerance appears limited. "Obviously this is not a positive development, but we can't tolerate people who openly express sympathy to people who commit violence," declared Suat Kınıklıoğlu , a former MP and central executive member for the governing Justice and Development Party. "There is a huge public outcry to make clear to everyone, whether they are members of parliament or not, that you simply cannot support people who act or implement terrorist attacks."
If the immunity is lifted, BDP deputy Kürkçü says the party’s 11 MPs could withdraw from parliament. "In the 10 years we were outside parliament, we got stronger," Kurkcu claimed. "If we are jailed, the opposition will get stronger. The people will not vote for the AKP. They will vote for the mountains, which means they are going to support the armed insurrection more than they were doing in the past."
But the political geographical map of Turkey’s neighbors is now very different. "In the 1990s, we only had the vestiges of an Iraqi Kurdish political entity in the making," pointed out Soli Özel, an international relations instructor at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "Now we have almost [a] fully fledged Kurdish state [in northern Iraq], which is quasi- independent. In Syria, the upheaval there has led to the possibility of another Kurdish entity.”
In its report, the International Crisis Group called on the Turkish government and “mainstream media” to “resist the impulse to call for [an] all-out anti-terrorist war” and for the country’s Kurdish activists to “pressure the PKK to halt its terrorist attacks.”
But with local, presidential and general elections scheduled in the next three years, the fate of the BDP deputies may ultimately rest with crude voting calculations.
"Erdoğan wants to be president in 2014 and Turkey is an overwhelmingly Turkish country,” noted Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, political columnist for the Milliyet daily. “It is about numbers [and] he knows which constituency to play for.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.