The highly disturbing murder of three Kurdish women activists in Paris -- among them one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- is casting a long shadow over newly launched talks between the Turkish government and the militant organization.
The Wednesday killing of the three women, which took place inside the Paris office of a Kurdish institute, was described by the French Minister of Interior as “without doubt an execution.” Along with Sakine Cansiz, the PKK co-founder, the victims included Fidan Dogan, a leading Kurdish figure in Europe and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.
The murders occurred in the midst of a critical time for the Kurdish issue. The new year started off with the announcement that the Turkish government and Abduallah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, have restarted talks aimed at resolving the decades-old Kurdish problem (a previous effort at talks was stymied after a strong backlash in Turkey). In recent days, several Turkish papers have reported on a possible "roadmap" being worked out between Ankara and Ocalan, which, among other things, includes numerous political reforms and the release of Kurdish prisoners on the Turkish side in return for the PKK disarming.
It's generally accepted that a strong separation of powers between the various branches of government is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. But recent comments made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, indicating that he believes Turkey's current separation of powers is hindering the country's progress, has left some observers concerned the PM might have a different understanding of how a democracy works.
During a speech made earlier this week in the city of Konya, Erdogan complained of obstacles that had been put in front of his government's efforts to introduce "further services" to the Turkish public. “You know this thing they call the division of powers; this turns up in front of you as an obstruction. The legislature, executive and judiciary in his country must consider the benefit of the nation first and then the benefit of the state,” the PM told his audience.
When the liberal daily Taraf was launched some five years ago, it was presented as prime evidence of how much Turkey has moved forward. Staffed with muckraking journalists who were especially committed to exposing the misdeeds of Turkey's powerful military, the scrappy newspaper truly did break new ground, covering stories that most of the Turkish mainstream media stayed away from for fear of crossing the powers that be.
Five years later, Taraf might be put forward as prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards, particularly in terms of press freedom issues. On Dec. 14, Taraf's top two editors -- Ahmet Altan, a vocal critic of the government, and Yasemin Congar, as well as two leading columnists -- resigned from the newspaper, effectively stripping it of some of its most powerful voices. The reasons for the resignations were not immediately given, but they came at a time when Taraf was facing increasing pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and some of its supporters after the newspaper started turning a critical eye towards how the government was managing Turkey's affairs.
Writing in Today's Zaman, veteran journalist and media observer Yavuz Baydar describes the role Taraf played in recent years:
In recent years, Turkey has been energetically investigating unexplained political crimes that had been committed in the past, hoping to shed some light on the work of what's known as the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersected in previous decades with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment.
In the case of late President Turgut Ozal, this unearthing of the past has been taken quite literally. The body of Ozal, who died of heart failure in 1993 at age 65, was recently exhumed in order to allow for an autopsy that might determine whether the leader was in fact poisoned. Although the dynamic Ozal was overweight and had undergone triple-bypass heart surgery the year before he died, his passing has long been treated by Turks as "mysterious," perhaps the result of the Deep State wanting to remove the reform-minded president from the scene.
Turkey has always been fertile ground for conspiracy theories and the circumstances surrounding Ozal's death provided too many tantalizing details -- an ambulance at his residence that wouldn't start, among some of them -- to make it possible for many Turks to believe that the president died of natural causes. Ozal's family, meanwhile, long insisted that he had been poisoned, with his wife claiming that he had been given a suspicious glass of lemonade at a reception at the Bulgarian embassy in Ankara the night before he died.
On Turkish television, these are dangerous times to be a historical figure or a cartoon character. In recent weeks, Turkey's state television regulatory body has accused The Simpsons of blasphemy, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested prosecutors take a look at a hit soap opera loosely based on the life of sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, accusing the show of denigrating the country's Ottoman past.
In the case of The Simpsons, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) fined private broadcaster CNBC-e $30,000 for showing in September an episode of the long-running animated series that the agency determined was "making fun of God." Writing in The Telegraph, Justin Vela reports:
The episode in question was the Halloween special 'Treehouse of Horrors XXII,' that originally aired in the US in October last year. In one segment of the episode, titled "Dial D for Diddly", the religiously-devout character Ned Flanders goes on a killing rampage after being given orders by what he thinks is the voice of God. Later in the episode, the Devil demands God bring him a cup of coffee. "Yes sir," God responds, revealing it is actually the Devil that runs the world.
RTUK stated that the episode shows "one of the characters is abusing another one's religious beliefs to make him commit murders.
The Bible is publicly burned in one scene and God and the Devil are shown in human bodies."
RTUK also said that God serving the Devil coffee can be considered an insult to religious beliefs.
Under the guidance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey completely abolished the death penalty in 2004, one of several reforms enacted with an eye towards meeting the criteria required for joining the European Union. So what to make of the suggestions made recently by the AKP's leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkey should consider reintroducing capital punishment?
First, the background. Erdogan got the debate going earlier this month when he told an annual gathering of AKP members that, in response to recent upsurge in attacks against Turkish forces by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), public opinion now supports reintroducing the death penalty. Soon after, Erdogan told a crowd in Ankara, "In the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table (for discussion)." While Turkey's Minister of Justice has said that there are no plans to bring the death penalty back, the fact that Erdogan -- Turkey's most powerful politician -- has brought up the issue, was enough to raise concern among many Turks and some European politicians.
Late last year, when Ankara was coming under severe attack for the growing number of journalists that were being jailed in Turkey, the government was able to call an unlikely witness in its defense: the press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists.
While press freedom advocates and government critics in Turkey put the number of jailed journalists in Turkey at the time at well over 70, CPJ, in its annual census of jailed journalists around the world, implausibly put the number at eight. The backlash to the group's report on Turkey was immediate and strong, strong enough that CPJ realized it needed to take a closer look at what's going in Turkey and issue a followup study.
That study was issued today, making it clear that CPJ got things quite wrong in last year's census. According to the group's new report (full disclosure: I was interviewed for the study), there are currently 76 journalists in jail in Turkey, making the country the world's leading jailer of journalists. From the report's summary:
As the Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- the Islamic-rooted party he helped build into one of Turkey's most powerful and successful political operations in decades -- approaches its annual congress this weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the undisputed heavyweight champ of Turkish politics. Regardless of what one thinks of Erdogan, his achievements, which include firmly pushing the once-powerful military back into their barracks and opening up a new space for religious expression in Turkey's public sphere, certainly make him one of his country's historically significant transformational figures.
This congress will mark a juncture for Erdogan. Since the AKP's bylaws prevent him from running for another term in parliament, it is widely assumed that the still ambitious PM has his sights set on becoming Turkey's next president (albeit after his party is able to engineer some constitutional changes which would make the presidency more powerful). Reuters sets the stage for the AKP congress, which will be held in Ankara:
The party's September 30 congress is unlikely to offer any sign Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, viewed by many Turks as their strongest leader since Ataturk, is loosening his grip on a heavily-centralized party or on the country as a whole. AK, its initials spelling out the word for purity, is Erdogan's child.
Like so many other recent political and judicial moves in Turkey, the final verdict that was handed down the other day in the "Sledgehammer" case -- in which more than 300 active and retired military officers, among them some generals, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government -- offers little resolution, only further deepening the political divide in the country.
To be sure, the 21-month case and the sentencing of the officers were history-making, the first time that members of Turkey's previously untouchable military found themselves on trial and then convicted for planning to do the kind of thing that their predecessors had done four times in the past. Needless to say, the final verdict makes it clear that the power equation in Turkey has changed for good and that the powerful military has been neutered as a political force. The military's rather tame response to the verdict, saying that it "shares the sorrow" of those were convicted and their family members, is a far cry from the more muscular kind of pronouncements the Turkish generals used to make when they weren't happy with things.
As the Kurdish issue in Turkey continues to heat up, both politically and militarily, the question of how Ankara should deal with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) becomes one that's both more urgent yet also harder to answer.
In a new report released last week, the International Crisis Group steps into the breach, urging both the Turkish government and the PKK to step back from further confrontation and providing some very sensible suggestions that provide a way towards finding settling the long-standing Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
I recently sent Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey analyst and the report's main author, a list of questions that follow up on some of the paper's observations and recommendations. Pope, a veteran Turkey observers who was previously the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in the country, was kind enough to provide some illuminating answers. Our exchange is below:
1. Many commentators are saying that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, is moving back to a harder, more nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue. Based on your research for your report, do you think this is a correct assessment?