Mulkiye Demir Kilinc, a 32-year-old Turkish Kurd and mother of two, is going to jail for selling books. She was charged with aiding a terrorist organisation when she sold some books in 2011 to a man accused of belonging to the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). At the time, she was working in a bookstore in the Mesopotamia Culture Centre (MKM) in Istanbul, which promotes Kurdish culture.
The man was later exonerated after no evidence of PKK membership was found. However, Kilinc’s charges were not dropped, and she was sentenced to over two years in prison. Her sentence was deferred several times after she gave birth to twins and dislocated her hip, but her last deferment has expired, and she could go to jail any day now. Because it is considered harmful to separate babies from their mothers, her twins will join her in prison.
Kilinc was charged under Turkey’s controversial anti-terrorism law, passed in 1991 during the vicious war between the state and the PKK. It was used to convict 20,000 people between 2009 and 2013, many of them Kurds, including scores of journalists and politicians. Activists say the law is most often used to imprison people for activities having nothing to do with violence or terror.
Kilinc, bright-eyed, sunny and well-spoken, actually laughs about her case, saying it is nothing unusual for a Kurd in Turkey. “This is what being a Kurd is about. You get used to the situation,” she says. “I have friends that have been tortured and left crippled, as well as relatives that have been killed. In comparison, the things I have experienced are just a drop in the bucket.”
“I’d say [Kilinc’ s case] is pretty typical,” adds Andrew Gardner, head of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch.
freedom of assembly.”]
“The case that was opened against her is a particularly bad one, but it’s not a unique example of how these anti-terrorism laws are used to prosecute a wide range of activities which are protected by the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association [and] freedom of assembly.”
Human Right Watch’s Emma Sinclair-Webb says the anti-terror bill is used selectively. “It applies disproportionately to Kurds. Everyone has people in their family who are detained under those kinds of provisions.”
Official dogma in Turkey until the early 1990s was that Kurdish people, about one fifth of the population, do not exist. Speaking Kurdish was illegal until 1991, Kurdish names were banned until 2003 and even Kurdish letters were illegal until 2013.
During the early years of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule, significant reforms were made.
Emergency rule in the southeast was lifted, as were bans on teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish. In 2009, the government introduced the so-called “Kurdish Initiative”, meeting with PKK leaders for often-bumpy peace negotiations. In March of 2013, the PKK committed to a unilateral ceasefire that has largely held.
However, clashes in Turkey’s southeast killed about 40 people last October, during the grimmest moments of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) siege of Kobane, and four more died in fighting on December 27. The Syrian Kurdish border town is very important to Turkey’s Kurds, who were unhappy with their government’s response to the onslaught.
Critics accused the Turkish government of preventing the passage of fighters and weapons from Turkey to Kobane because the town is governed by the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also publicly said the PKK is no different from ISIL, a view held by many Turks. This further enraged millions of Turkey’s Kurds, many of whom support the PKK.
Professor Mesut Yegen, an expert on Kurdish affairs, says Kobane is crucial for peace in Turkey. “If Kobane had fallen, the peace process wouldn’t have continued,” he notes, adding even worse violence would have followed.
Yegen says the AKP failed to recognise the importance of Kobane to the peace process.
“Basically they wanted Kobane to be destroyed by ISIL,” he says, because the city is controlled by the PYD, which gives the PKK a bargaining chip. But now, Yegen says, the AKP’s policy has changed.
“Kobane will be defended against ISIL with the help of the Peshmerga and with a kind of covert help from the Turkish government. But in return for that, the PKK will have to share power in Kobane with the [Kurdistan Democratic Party],” Iraqi Kurdistan’s conservative ruling party, which is often at odds with the leftist PKK and PYD.
In late October, Peshmerga forces were granted passage from Iraqi Kurdistan to Kobane via Turkey. Thanks to reinforcements and coalition air strikes, the tide seems to have shifted and Kurdish forces now reportedly control about two-thirds of the town.
|ISIL face Kurdish resistance in Kobane|
Yegen maintains that the peace process is of the utmost importance and must move forward. He says it has resulted in the most peaceful three years since major fighting between the PKK and the state started 30 years ago.
However, beyond stemming the bloodshed, the process has not accomplished much else, and Kurds still experience systematic discrimination.
In terms of reforms concerning Kurds’ cultural and political rights, “utterly nothing has been done”, Yegen says. He believes the government must commit to something concrete before the general election next June if it wants the PKK to stay at the negotiating table, but it has so far dithered for fear of losing nationalist voters.
“On the one hand, [the government] wants to keep the PKK at the negotiation table, yet on the other hand it wants to do almost nothing before the election. These things are incompatible,” Yegen says.
Sinclair-Webb criticises the peace process for its lack of transparency and inclusiveness. “What’s very much missing is a kind of willingness to engage with critical voices across the spectrum and incorporate them in the process.”
She also worries about the general rollback of human rights in Turkey over the past several years. “It’s hard to see that this peace process could be successful while you have so many setbacks all the time in other areas.”
Ece Temelkuran, a prominent journalist and author who has written extensively about Kurdish issues, says peace is not simply a contract; it is a process involving open dialogue, forgiveness and understanding.
“You have to tell people why their kids are dead, and why we don’t want them to be killed any more. And therefore you have to say that the state is not sacred,” and that people died due to bad policies, Temelkuran says.
A reconciliation process is needed, she adds, but she is not holding her breath: “This political culture doesn’t include apologies.”