On 30 April, the Turkish Parliament passed a highly controversial amendment to Article 301, which limits the freedom of expression in Turkey by criminalising any “insult to Turkishness”. The Parliamentary debate that preceded the vote was stormy, but the amendment was finally passed with 250 votes for and only 65 against.
According to the Minister of Justice, Mehmet Ali Sahin, 6075 individuals have been charged under this Article and Article 159 (that it replaced) over the last five years — 745 of them have been sentenced. Thus the murdered journalist, Hrant Dink, had been sentenced under this law. Some writers, like Orhan Pamuk, and Elif Shafek, had also been sued for their stand on the Armenian genocide but been acquitted. However, according to Erdol Onderoglu, editor responsible for questions of freedom of expression on the Bianet web site and correspondent of Reporters sans Frontières, these figures show how, apart from the 150 intellectuals pursued, on whom the press mainly focused, “it is more the ordinary people in the street who were the victims in this period” — and many of these were minors.
Despite the many voices raised for its abolition, particularly with in the European Union, which made it a precondition of Turkey’s membership, the Article, nevertheless, was only subjected to a very light “sweetening” of the nature of the offence that it attacked: “public denigration of Turkish identity”. When applied to the Republic or the Turkish Grand National Assembly, it will be punishable by six months to three years imprisonment. When applied to the government of the Turkish Republic, the State’s judicial institutions, the military or security structures the penalty is three months to two years — “increased by a third” if the offence of denigration by a Turkish citizen takes place outside the country. Another alteration — “charges under this Article must receive the approval of the Minister of Justice” and no longer left to the judgement of the Public Prosecutor.
According to the Turkish correspondent of The Economist, Ambari Zaman, this amendment is a clumsy attempt to please both the European Union and the Turkish nationalists: “I think that it a kind of acrobatic exercise but, by walking on a tight rope n this way, they are bound to fall as neither the nationalist (who they are trying to appease) nor the E.U. seem satisfied. Indeed we have heard many E.U. officials saying, in private, that this was just a cosmetic change”.
The woolliness of the term of “Turkish nation” in the law will allow many Prosecutors to continue to sue whosoever they feel like on the basis of very subjective assessments of what might constitute “insulting” the nation. Moreover, its dissuasive effect will probably be just as ineffective as in the past, as is confirmed by Ambari Zaman: “I think that we will continue to see writers like Orhan Pamuk and others defying official history — whether on the question of the massacre of Armenians in 1915 or on the fate of the Kurds. Consequently these prosecutions will continue”.
Erol Onderoglu sees no change in this reform but points out that “it is more a matter of the way justice is practiced. In writing, this may seem quite normal to a Westerner who compares the texts of laws in his own country with those in Turkey. I would like to stress that the problem is due, to a great extent, in the application of these article by the Turkish courts”.
The reduction of the maximum sentence means that, henceforth, “the accused will not be tried by criminal courts but by police courts. That is to say that, even in the event of passing the maximum sentence, the penalties will be reduced and commuted to suspended sentences. There will be more mechanisms at the judges disposal to see that an accused person does not go to prison even though found guilty”. However, in Erol Onderoglu’s opinion, this lightening of the offence will be offset by the fact that “the accused will have difficulty in getting media coverage of their case because journalists in the national and international press will not attach an importance to their case since the accused will not be sent to prison”.
Despite this, the European Union’s Presidency (undertaken by Slovenia) described the amendment of Article 301, in a statement, as a “constructive advance towards guaranteeing freedom of expression”. Nevertheless, many Human Rights defence organisations have denounced its ineffectiveness and called for the abolition of all the legal articles that limit freedom of expression in Turkey, particularly those inherited from the Anti-Terrorist Law and those condemning any “crime” against the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Other celebrities accused under Article 301, the academics Ibrahim Kaboglu and Baskin Oran, have been finally and permanently acquitted this month, after 4 years of legal harassment. Having written a report on cultural and minority rights — a report made at the government’s request — they were criticised and charged by the Public Prosecutor of “inciting hatred and hostility between the peoples” (Article 216) as well as insulting Turkishness (Article 301). The accusation was based on the term “turkiyelilik” or “of Turkey” that the report proposed using to describe “Turkish” citizens of different ethnic origins. On 10 May 2006 the 28th Ankara Criminal Court had dismissed the case regarding the two articles. This judgement was quashed by an appeal court before being finally confirmed by the Plenary Appeal’s Commission on 28 April last.
Peaking about this decision, Ibrahim Kaboglu considered that this was an important victory for freedom of discussion and opinion, since it would create a judicial precedent for all future cases. According to BIA Media Monitoring Report, since the beginning of 2008 186 people, 71 of them journalists, have been subject to proceedings regarding 92 cases, 12 of them started on the basis of Article 301 (as against 4 last year at the same period).
On the occasion of the International Press Freedom Day, 3 May, many Turkish editorial writers and journalists debated the difficulties that freedom of expression and information meets in their country, going from physical attacks to death threats or a variety of forms of intimidation or else pirating Internet sites. As for police intimidation, the authors of such forms of intimidation are never bothered, the report stresses so that aggression against journalists take place in an atmosphere of impunity.
He most frequent grounds for proceedings against journalists are “insult”, “propaganda” and “defamation”. The publishing houses are also targeted: Haftaya Bakis, Yedinci Gun, Yasamda Demokrasi and Toplumsal Democrasi have been obliged to stop their activity six times for “propaganda in favour of the PKK”. The Internet sites are subjected to censorship. Thus Indymedia-Istanbul has been banned by decision of an Army court, as has the YouTube.com site, a site for the free sharing of video pictures, for contents that were insulting to Ataturk. This last was on the basis of a law that, as Erol Onderoglu explains, “is not part of the Turkish penal code — it is a totally separate law. What is surprising is that, during the reforms for the European Union, this law was never mentioned and, in my view it is a memory law, like the one passed in France. It represses all those who want to call to question the practices of the past, of the Ataturk period”.
Finally the Supreme Radio and Television Council (RTUK) has rebuked the Star TV channel because of remarks by the famous transsexual performer that opposed military operations against the Kurds.
In general, there is an increase in censorship taking place at the levels of news and publishing, that even goes as far as purely and simply forbidding certain events to be covered in the press: the 11th Istanbul Criminal Court has thus forbidden the media from making any mention of the trial by Army of the eight Turkish soldiers that had been captured and then released by the PKK at the end of 2007.
Commenting on the meeting between Nechirvan Barzani and the Turkish delegation that took place in Baghdad at the beginning of the month, the Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, on his return from a visit to Ankara, pointed out to the daily Al-Sabbah that Turkey’s attitude to Iraq had changed. It now seemed less concerned with the status of Kirkuk and the Turcomen as with strengthening economic and social relations between the two countries. This change, according to al-Hashemi, can be attributed to the development of relations between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds, particularly following Irbil’s agreement to postpone the Kirkuk referendum for six months.
Opinions are divided, however, on the appropriateness of such a delay. During a conference in the US Congress building, organised jointly by the Washington Kurdish Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, a number of speakers stressed, in their contributions, that postponing the application of article 140 would only increase Iraq’s instability.
Thus the President of the Washington Kurdish Institute, Dr. Najmaldin Karim, saw Article 140 as the most urgent problem for Iraq, and General Jay Gardner, who was US pro-consul in Iraq before Paul Bremer, in comparing the situation of the Kurdistan Region with that in the rest of Iraq and even of the Middle East as a whole, stated, in relation to the holding of the referendum: “If I was living in Kirkuk, I know how I would vote”.
The first discussion panel was on the issue of Article 140 and the Iraqi constitution. It included Peter Galbraith, former US Ambassador to Croatia, Joe Reeder, Jason Gluck and Professor Brendan O’Leary. The moderator was Dr. Karim. Peter Galbraith, a member of the Centre for the control and non-proliferation of armament, presented Kurdistan as a country independent in all respects save in terms of international recognition — and this de facto independence is recognised in the Iraqi Constitution. Peter Galbraith stressed that Kurdistan is the only place in Iraq where any democracy exists, even though this democracy is still imperfect. He added that referenda are not, in themselves, sources of compromise — there is always a winner and a loser, and that is a fact that must be accepted, even though seeking to attenuate the resentment of the losers, in particular by a significant degree of power sharing. Joe Reeder, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Defence, on the other hand, recommended compromise as the only possible solution: the challenge involved in the application of Article140 is immense and factors such as justice, self-determination, equity and stability must be taken into account in settling the issue: minorities must be assured that they will be decently treated.
For Jason Gluck, legal advisor to the American Peace Institute, the application of this article is difficult because of a “hostile environment”. Moreover, the Iraqi government is no longer legally obliged to be bound by it since the ultimate time limit set by the Constitution expired on 31 December last. “Political reality shows us that a political agreement is necessary”. The situation of Iraqi Kurdistan, isolated and surrounded by Turkey, Syria and Iran does not allow it to hold the referendum by sheer force of will. On the contrary, Jason Gluck fears that it could lose the regions it already administers.
However, Brendan O’Leary, professor of political Science at Pennsylvania University, who was advisor to the Kurdish government during the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, pointed out that, if the referendum was cancelled, the Kurds might be tempted to settle matters themselves, especially as the two main Kurdish parties are subject to nationalist pressures. He added that it would be a serious mistake to consider article 140 null and void. O’Leary endeavoured to demolish certain “myths” about the Kirkuk issue, particularly that of the stranglehold of oil resources said to be connected with the city: this ignores major Iraqi constitutional measures that provide for the sharing of all the natural resources between the regions, regardless of origin. “There is no conspiracy for any takeover of the oil there”.
The second “myth” he attacked was that Kirkuk was a powder barrel. In Brendan O’Leary’s opinion, it is false to imagine that reuniting Kirkuk with Kurdistan would plunge it into violence, so long as security was maintained. The third myth that can be called the “terrible Turkish thesis” is that the Turks would do all in their power to prevent such a reunification. He did not believe in this thesis, because of Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. Finally, there is the “fanciful” theory of the “crazy Kurdish conjecture”, the idea that the Kurds were planning to declare their independence, whereas the Iraqi Kurds had no need to declare this openly since they already had more freedom in their self-government than, for example, any country in the European Union.
Before the second panel discussion, Kamal Kirkuki, spokesman of the Kurdish Parliament, explained that the danger was more likely to come from a centralised Iraq and that the Kurds were no seeking revenge but the to put right certain past injustices, recounting all the stages of Saddam’s takeover of Kirkuk and its forcible Arabisation. He concluded: “We only want the people to be able to return home in a peaceful and legal manner.” Mohammad Ihsan, Minister for Extra-regional Affairs of the KRG and, thus in charge of the question of re-uniting all the regions claimed by the Kurds, described at length the demographic problems. In 1968, a “normalisation” policy set up a forcible movement of emigration and immigration in these regions by attracting new settlers with agricultural contracts.
The President of the Paris Kurdish Institute, Kendal Nezan, stressed the hostile manoeuvres of neighbouring countries against Article 140. Because of the marginalisation of their own Kurdish population, Iran and Syria view the emergence of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in an unfavourable light. But while the United States attaches little importance to these two countries concerns, this is not the case with Turkey, which has always refused to resolve the problem of its 10 to 15 million Kurds, while posing as the “protector” of the 400-500,000 Iraqi Turcomen. The Ottoman sources always referred to Kirkuk as Kurdish and the League of Nations, in 1925, confirmed its Kurdish character. To wing up Kendal Nezan called for a dialogue between the Kurds, the Turks and the western countries to find a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question as a whole.
Saman Shali, President of the Kurdish National Congress, then took the floor, recalling that the Iraqi Constitution, and thus Article 140, was supported by the United Nations, the United States and Iraq. It gave the people living in the disputed regions “the right to choose their own destiny”. Failure to apply this article would compromise peace and stability and altering it would undermine the constitution as a whole. Failure to observe Article 140 would be “a slap in the face of democracy, freedom and human rights”.
The second panel covered reconciliation and power sharing, with David Phillips, Ambassador David Berger, Erin Mathews, David Pollack and Qubad Talabani, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in the United States. The discussion was chaired by Brendan O’Leary. Phillips, a research worker studying human rights at Columbia University, recalled that reconciliation was a process, not an event, and that power sharing was essential if the population was not to feel it had no other recourse but that or violence. Thus “it is important to give minorities a share of the cake”. The director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for Iraq, Erin Mathews, reporting the field work carried out by his Institute to resolve the communal problems in Kirkuk, in particular by bringing together the actors of civil society, outside political parties, expressed the feeling of “powerlessness” of the citizens when the question of Article 140 comes up. He considers it responsible for the growing sectarianism in the city, which also reflects the communal divisions throughout Iraq.
David Berger, former member of parliament and former Canadian Ambassador, stated, on the contrary, that federalism is a cause of freedom, without which only three solutions are possible for a composite State: I single group rules, or the State breaks down or there is a “shaky democracy”, as is federal Iraq. In the view of David Berger, the Kurdish experiment is “the beginning of a new direction for the Middle East”.
David Pollack, a member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees Article 140 as one facet amongst others of the delicate problem of reconciliation — of which the most important aspect, in his view, is the sharing of power between Kurds and Arabs and the reconciliation between Iraq and its neighbours. Kurdistan, David Pollack warned, must not follow the road of Pakistan regarding Kashmir, and not jeopardise its future because of Kirkuk.
Qubad Talabani, speaking in the name of the Kurdish government, states that the latter does not want anything other than a just and viable resolution of the conflict. “No national reconciliation can take place without the question of disputed territories being settled and no justice will be possible without some reparation of wrongs committed to the victims of former regimes”.
The last panel, dealing with the history leading to the present situation included some participants who had already spoken, Kamal Kirkuki, Mohammad Ihsan and Dr. Karim, with Saman Shali acting as moderator.
All insisted on the importance of protecting the rights of each group and of building an atmosphere of confidence.
About a hundred people, including many Congress assistants and journalists, attended this conference, whose aim was to contribute to informing the American public on a subject that is blocking the future of Iraq.
The drought that is hitting certain regions of the Middle East is particularly affecting the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Turkish Minister of agriculture, Mehdi Eker, has even raised the possibility of declaring the Southeast “a natural disaster area”, which would lead to special measures in support of the inhabitants, going from grants to reduction of debts. However, Turkish law does not include drought in its list of “natural disasters” for the region. According to the Diyarbekir Chamber of Agriculture, the situation is so serious that it could lead to an increase in the emigration of inhabitants of the region, whose small peasant farmers and shopkeepers are facing bankruptcy while the price of food are constantly increasing.
Last year, the rainfall in the period from October to March was about 377mm per square metre as against 147 this year. In 2007 had already seen a drop in rainfall of 47%, according to Turkish national metrological statistics.
According to the President of the Union of Turkish Chambers of Agriculture (TZOB), Semsi Bayraktar, interviewed by the daily paper Zaman, the cost of the drought has reached 5 billion Turkish lires, about 2.5 billion euros. The first social consequence will be the emigration of peasants, even those owning their own land, to other regions next spring to find jobs as seasonal workers. Already, every day, the railways stations are full of people leaving for the West of the country, which causes other problems — the influx of agricultural workers with a daily wage of between 25 and 18 Turkish lire. Furthermore these peasants' children have to follow their parents and interrupt their schooling.
The drought also hits the stock breeders who have to take them summer pastures still further from their to villages or else sell them to be slaughtered. Thus Yakup Kaçar, a herdsman of the Diyarbekir region, explained that, with his clan, he had to lead their herd of 4,000 head to the North of Van, because the pastures round Batman had completely dried up. As, for security reasons, they were forbidden to do the whole journey herding their beasts on foot, they had to hire lories, which added to the expense.
In the Kurdish South-East, more than half the population works in the agricultural sector, but the peasants are not the only ones to suffer: the small shopkeepers also have economic difficulties, as their customers are essentially agricultural. The president of the Diyarbekir Union of Chambers of Trade and Crafts (DESOB), Alican Ebedinoglu, explained that many of these small shops give during the winter and are paid when after the harvest. However, this year such an arrangement will not be possible: “There hasn’t been such a drought since 1970. The farmers will not be able to pay their debts to the shopkeepers and craftsmen. This will affect nearly 100,000 shopkeepers and this drought means their unemployment for them”. Alican Ebedinoglu pointed out that many of these craftsmen and shopkeepers have been unable to pay their social security contributions, which excludes them from Health Service benefits.
The Kurdish DTP party has demanded that the region be declared a disaster zone, which the Minister of Agriculture considers one of the “possible options”: “We are watching the situation carefully. Before the start of the sowings, we asked the farmers to avoid those crops that require a lot of water. But there is no moisture in the subsoil and everything that was sown has withered through lack of rain. We are examining the situation before deciding what to do”.
It is anticipated that here will be a shortfall of 2.5 million tonnes of wheat, 1.4 million tonnes of barley and 250,000 tonnes of red lentils, which will lead to price increases and unemployment.
According to the president of the Urfa Chamber of Agriculture, farmer who do not use irrigation will be unable to save their harvest, even if it does rain this month, while those use it will only save about 10% of it. He sees as “the only lasting solution” the completion of the project of dams for South-East Anatolia (GAP) for which the government has just announced a budget of 2.3 billion Turkish lire ($1.82 billion) to launch it again. This project includes building dams (about 20 of which have already been built) with the aim of irrigating 1,800,000 hectares (4.3 million acres). The GAP project also envisages infrastructures for the Kurdish South-East, which is still a very disadvantaged region, involving the creation of motorways and airports as well as the region’s industrialisation. It also has some social programmes in partnership with NGOs, such as UNICEF. As for its political objective, it is solidly to weld to the Turkish idea, this rebellious Kurdish region, so resistant to assimilation.
However the GAP project is still highly controversial, at once by the local population and b neighbouring countries that also depend on the Tigris and Euphrates watercourse, as well as with ecologists and NGOs that attack Turkey’s lack of any social policy or help in rehousing the displaced villages.
The areas already irrigated, which have started producing cotton, as at Urfa or Sivan, have, in fact, been appropriated (after the expropriation of the smallholders (because of the dams, of forced displacement or indebtedness) by a handful of big landowners, linked to the local powers that be. The labour force working in the cotton fields consists largely of former peasants and small landowners, as well as women and children employed at very low wages, with the effect of increasing the unemployment of adult men. Moreover, no industrial takeoff has yet been observed. Moreover, the ecological repercussions of these dams have not been evaluated and there are now serious health problems developing, as for example epidemics of dysentery malaria etc.
Finally, the disappearance of major historic sites of upper Mesopotamia, such as Zeugma and soon Hasankeyf has been sharply criticised.
During a meeting at Duernstein, in Austria, the Ministers of Economy of Germany, Austria and Switzerland threatened to withdraw from the guarantees offered to the credits for financing the Ilisu Dam (the one that threatens Hasankeyf) if Turkey persisted in neglecting social and environmental implications in its management of such projects.
These three countries have, hitherto, granted guarantees to firms involved in building this to a total of more than a billion euros.
Building the Ilisu dam, as well as drowning a unique historic and ecological site, will displace 50,000 people. Turkey’s assurances of rehousing them and rehabilitating them in new kinds of work have clearly not convinced the European ministers, especially in view of what has already happened in similar cases.
Furthermore, the Turkish Association for the Protection of Water and the Environment has launched an appeal regarding the possible disappearance of Lake Van, whose water level is dropping as well as it being subjected to heavy pollution. The practice of intensive and uncontrolled fishing is already threatening several species with extinction. Thus a group of Turkish scientists has estimated that in the next 10 or 15 years the lake could disappear if adequate measures were not taken and applied.
Moreover the drought also affects Iraq and this country has asked Turkey to release more water to the Tigris and Euphrates, whose sources are in Turkish Kurdistan. “The irrigation of Iraq is entirely dependent on the Euphrates and the Tigris”, explained Abdullatif Jamal Rashid, the Iraqi Minister for Water Resources after a meeting he’d had with the Turkish Minister of External Trade, Kursad Tuzman. “The last few years Turkey has supplied us with enough water — even more than needed. This year, however, we have difficulty coping with a drought that is much more severe than expected”.
Turkey, Syria, Iraq have recently buried the hatchet on the question of water and agreed to cooperate through an institute formed of 18 experts from the three countries.
On 29 April, the Turkish Parliament passed a law authorising the Turkish National Radio and Television (TRT) to broadcast programmes ain languages “other than Turkish”. The General Manager of TRT, Ibrahim Sahin, confirmed that he planned initially to broadcast programmes in Kurdish, Arabic and Persian.
At the end of 2004 TRT had already started broadcasting 30 minutes a week of broadcasts in Kurdish as well as leaving room for other minority languages, in response to repeated demands from the European Union — despite the hostility of the caste Army leadership and a part of the Turkish political caste that see this as encouraging “separatism”.
The passing of this law has provoked a variety of reactions in Turkey. Hasip Kaplan, the DTP (pro-Kurdish) party’s Member of Parliament for Sirnak, commented on this decision: “It is a form of cultural vandalism to forbid 20 million Kurds to speak their mother tongue. These 20 million Kurdish citizens, who do their national army service and pay their taxes, have the right to expect programmes in the Kurdish language from the TRT. Our country will not be split just because some folk songs are sung or some poems are read on the air. On the contrary, this will strengthen our brotherhood”.
Some Kurdish intellectuals consider that this will raise the morale of the Kurds in Turkey. Tarik Ziya Ekinci see in these Kurdish language broadcasts a factor that could greatly contribute to establishing social peace in Turkey. “It is an important step and I think that it will help ensure less blood shed and silence the guns”. Serafettin Elçi, leader of the pro-Kurdish KADEP party also thinks that this can give the Kurdish citizens the feeling that the State is concerned about them, though with some reservations. “Till now the official policy was to deny the existence of a Kurdish language. This means rejecting and denying the Kurds. This law sends out the message that such a policy has been abandoned — from that point of view its significant enough, and important in terms of the official acceptance of the Kurdish language. However, if the programmes follow the line of state policy, this would not make much sense to the Kurds. It would be more significant to give more freedom to the private channels, that are more responsive to popular expectations”.
It was at Diyarbekir that Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced these Kurdish language programmes at the same time as the resumption of the GAP project. The Turkish Prime Minister affirmed his determination to improve democracy and the quality of life in Turkey. However Diren Keser, Production Director of the Kurdish GunTV channel, which, moreover was cited by the Prime Minister in his speech, is also more reserved, pointing out that, for the moment, GunTV is not broadcasting and that the television and radio programmes that have been broadcast since 25 January 2004 in fact come up against many restrictions. Diren Keser stresses that Tayyip Erdogan, had made the same remarks in a speech four months earlier, without this changing the situation in any way.
GunTV broadcasts 4 hours a week, that is 45 minutes a day. Broadcasts on learning the Kurdish language and children’s broadcasts are forbidden. It can only broadcast news, music and programmes regarding traditional culture. All broadcasts in Kurdish must, imperatively, be sub-titled (in Turkish).
In the issue of the Kurdish language in the Turkish public area, Sezgin Tanrikulu, had clashed publicly with the Prime Minister when the latter met 17 NGOs representing civil society. Recep Tayip Erdogan had declared that: “the Treaty of Lausanne did not provide for the public use of Kurdish” (see the Paris Kurdish Institute’s Bulletin for April 2008). Sezgin Tanrikulu in an interview given to the daily paper Zaman returned to this question of the right to education in ones mother tongue, pointing out that it was, in principal, a matter of education in this language at all levels of schooling, but that, as things are, Turkey turns out to be incapable of allowing its citizens to learn Kurdish. “Turkey has opened the way for the learning of mother languages — but only in private classes. Many of these classes have closed, moreover, because of too restrictive regulations. They were only open to those over the age of 15, and it was very difficult to find teachers. Learning mother tongues must take place in all the state schools. There must be optional courses in the state schools. We are also asking that the obstacles and restrictions of broadcasts in languages other than Turkish be lifted. As for programmes, there are no legal obstacles, in fact — the law shows that this kind of programme is allowed. However, the regulations of the Supreme Radio and Television Council (RTUK) say that this can only be done by TRT. We have taken the matter of these regulations to the State Council but our case was rejected on the grounds that we did not have the right to lodge such a complaint”. (Zaman)
Finally, some Kurdish politicians, including Osman Baydemir, the Mayor of Diyarbekir, boycotted Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech, criticising his refusal to recognise the Kurds as a minority in Turkey, with measures of cultural protection and political autonomy.
At the beginning of this month, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, for the first time ever, met a Turkish delegation in Baghdad. The latter was led by Ahmet Davutoglu one of the Turkish Prime Minister’s advisors, and included Murat Ozçelik, Turkey’s coordinator for Iraqi Affairs and the Turkish Ambassador to Iraq, Derya Kanbay.
This meeting covered a whole range of burning issues that oppose the KRG and Turkey, in areas of economics, politics and security. The KRG spokesman described the discussions as “cordial, conducted in an open atmosphere”, pointing out that the two parties had similar views on many subjects, with “a desire for mutual understanding and common interests”.
For his part, the president of the Kurdistan Region, Masud Barzani, repeated, during a meeting of his party at Salahaddin, that the PKK should renounce the use of force and reaffirmed that the Iraqi Kurds hoped to dialogue with Ankara. He commented on the meeting between his Prime Minister and the Turkish delegation by speaking of a “psychological barrier” that would have been overcome: “We hope that positive stages will finally be passed. Relations with Turkey are improving. The cold winds that have been blowing on both sides have disappeared after the last meeting. This meeting has been useful. We hope to have close relations with the neighbouring countries. However, these relations suffer from these countries’ internal conflicts. The Kurdish question cannot be resolved by war. The solution can only come from dialogue and through political and peaceful means. Turkey’s military operation last February was not a good thing. I am grateful to the population of the Region that behaved in a generous manner during this operation. We are ready to help all parties, provided that the aim is a political solution”
Adopting the same conciliatory tone, the Turkish Prime Minister, whose government is struggling with a serious internal crisis, declared in a meeting with his own party, which is being threatened with being banned: “Our dialogue both with the central government and with the groups will continue. We treat seriously the problem of counter-terrorism in its political and economic dimensions as well as its security dimension. Iraq and Turkey must act in mutual understanding and confidence”.
For its part, the principal Kurdish party in Turkey, the DTP, also sent a delegation led by Ahmet Turk, President of its Parliamentary group, to see Jalal Talabani and ask him to plat an active role in the resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, insisting on the vital necessity for the Kurdish people of remaining united. After this meeting, Ahmet Turk indicated that Jalal Talabani supported a political solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey on the basis of mutual disarmament. He also added that they had agreed to meet more often in future.
However, the delegation was not able to meet with either Masud or Nechirvan Barzani as they had hoped. Sources close to the Kurdish government explained that the two Kurdish leaders considered it hardly useful to compromise the resumption of contact with Turkey just as relations were beginning to improve. The Kurdish Prime Minister repeated, in a statement published on the official KRG web site, that the PKK forces were based on a zone beyond his control and that the Iraqi Kurds did not want their territory to be used to attack Turkey and so could not be held responsible for that movement.
Meanwhile, Turkish shelling and bombing of Kurdistan continued on the Qandil mountains, which shelter the PKK bases — without causing any casualties, according to the movement’s spokesman, Ahmed Denis, ho accused Turkey of exporting its internal problems to its neighbours: “It is important for the Iraqi Kurds to realise that Turkey wants to relieve itself of the PKK, which is an internal problem, by accusing neighbouring countries of supporting the PKK. The leaders in Iraq must be conscious of this fact when dealing with the Turkish delegation”.
So far, the principal victims of this bombing, whether they come from Turkey or Iran, have been the border villagers who have had to flee their homes and now live in refugee camps not far from their homes, as the Los Angeles Times reported. As Mohammad Khorsheed, from the village of Rezga explained to the paper’s reporter: “We have some herds, which we need to feed. We cannot lead them up to summer pastures in the mountains. We cannot work on our farms and we do not know to whom claim compensation”. Another villager, Saman Haidar, who came under fire during the bombing does not envisage returning in the immediate future, and described the air raids they had suffered as “terrifying”: “We escaped to a little shelter we had built some time before. We put out all the lights”. When they were able to come out, Saman Haidar left the village, taking his entire herd with him, hoping to keep it safe until the problem was resolved.
Iran, for its part, has regularly shelled Kurdish villages on the Iraqi border, in Suleimaniah Province, aiming at the PJAK group, the Iranian branch of the PKK — though apparently without causing any casualties. The Kurdistan Regional Government has, nevertheless, asked UNO, through its representative to Iraq and the KRG in Irbil, Dindar Zebari, to make representations to Teheran for an end to this shelling. Dindar Zebari has pointed out that 12 villages had suffered Iranian shelling and that 140 families had fled.
A report in the Kurdish weekly, Kurdish Globe, draws attention to the alarming situation of the Shabaks, a Kurdish religious group resulting from a split in the Shiite movement, like the Alevis of Turkey. Like their Northern cousins, they have developed an original cult, very far from the duodecimal Shiism of the Iraqis. Les known and less numerous than the Yezidis, the Shabaks are stigmatised both as Kurds and as “Shiites”. They are mainly located in Mosul Province, and are the preferred target of al-Qaida. Thus the group called “the Islamic State of Iraq” has recently distributed leaflets in the province ordering the Shabaks to leave the region or suffer “an uncertain fate”.
One of the members of this group, speaking anonymously to the Kurdish Globe, explained that his community was caught between two fires in that region: as Kurds they are targeted by the nationalist terrorists and as Shabaks by the Sunnis (who make up the majority of Mosul’s population). He says he himself left the province three years ago because of incessant attacks on his village by insurgents. This village, only 15 Km from the city of Mosul, had already become filled with Shabak families who had left the city because of threats. “I think that the main motive that hides behind this declaration is the determination of the Sunni islamists to control the areas inhabited by the Shabaks because they are both Kurdish and Shiite. We are asking Baghdad to find a solution to these attacks”.
According to a report issued by the Shabak community itself, over a thousand people have fled Mosul province since 2004, principally from the villages of Darwish, Bazawia, Kukji, Khazna, and Fathlia, before the escalation of violence.
Hanin Qado, president of the Office of Minorities in Iraq and member of the Iraqi Parliament for the Shiite United Alliance, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has asked for a protection of minorities by the Iraqi State to be set up rapidly. “These threats have the aim or sowing discord between the different components of Iraq and driving (the Shabaks) out of Mosul”.
For his part, Khasro Goran, a Kurdish assistant to the Governor of Mosul, explains that this is not the first time since 2004, that religious extremists and insurgents have threatened the Shabaks. According to him the principal reason is that they consider themselves Kurds and not Arabs.
Delegations from his community have also gone to Kurdistan Region to ask the government at Irbil for help. Meanwhile, they are waiting impatiently for Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution to be applied so that they can opt, by referendum, for their area to be included in the Kurdistan Region.
The Shabaks are estimated at between 40 to 60,000 strong. Their language is sometimes linked to the Kurdish gorani dialect, and includes many words borrowed from Turkish, Arabic and Persian. They cover some 35 villages to the East of Mosul.
North and East of Mosul, as well as the Nineveh region, contains many non-Arab and n0n-Moslem communities, that are particularly subject to attacks by former Baathists and Sunni extremists. Last February the kidnapping and death of the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Monsignor Faraj Rahou, had moved the whole Christian community of Iraq.
Another Kurdish group that has been harshly persecuted and decimated because of both its ethnic and religious status, the Faylis, has seen a large number of its members forced to flee to Iran. The Kurdish Faylis have lived for centuries on the Zagros chain, between the Iraqi and Iranian borders. Unlike the majority of Kurdish Moslems, they are Shiites of the duodecimal faith. For this reason, accused of being “Iranians” by Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war, they were stripped of their Iraqi nationality and driven out of the country or else deported and secretly slaughtered. The refugees that did manage to escape to Iran (several hundreds of thousands in the provinces of Ilam and Ahwaz) are thus officially “stateless” and live in refugee camps such as Jahrom. Only about 760 of them, in Ilam province, have secured Iranian nationality, after long and difficult procedures. Many returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam and the number who have chosen to remain in Iran is about 7,000. However, an official of the Jahrom camp explains their dilemma: “When they return to Iraq people say: “You are Iranians”. Here people say they are Iraqis and must leave. In Iraq they meet with many problems — firstly that of insecurity. Moreover, they have been exiled so long that they no longer have any contacts there, nor jobs nor homes”.
In 2005, the new Iraqi constitution stipulated that Iraqis deprived of their nationality could apply to regain it. This would be the legal solution for these Fayli Kurds, but they are hardly optimistic about this: “We survived the Saddam regime when we were thrown into tanks of acid. We have no confidence in governments — old or new. We cannot return there, for security, political and religious reasons”.
Like last year, the dominant theme of the May Day demonstrations was violence. Since the coup d’état of 1980, this day is no longer a public holiday and the AKP government refused to restore it despite demands by the Trade Unions.
Over 50,000 police were mobilised in preparation for the demonstrations and Taksim Square, Istanbul’s symbolic rallying point, forbidden to the Unions, although many of them, including DISK and TURK-IS the two main workers union confederations, had asked to commemorate there the death of 34 Unionists, killed on 1st May 1977 by marksmen officially “unknown” even though the extreme Right and the secret services have been publicly accused of it.
The government refused to authorise rallies in the square, alleging threats of trouble from “extremist groups”. Thus, as from dawn, Taksim Square was held by the police as well as the area around it, where the schools and the metro stations were all closed and anti-riot police were deployed in the Square’s gardens while Army commandoes and paramilitary units were deployed in a park overlooking the Square. Helicopters flew overhead and sharpshooters were posted on the roofs.
At first the Unions decided to march from Sisli to Taksim, defying the ban. But at midday Suleyman Celebi, the head of the great left-wing Union Confederation DISK announced a change of plan for fear of violence. This, however, did not stop the police from dispersing, with tear gas and water canons, the demonstrators gathering in front of the DISK offices. The clashes caused several injured and many people were arrested (over 500 according to the NTV channel).
In the afternoon, groups of anarchists or of the extreme left that wanted to force the barricades round Taksim Square were attacked by the police and dispersed with truncheon blows. They riposted by throwing Molotov cocktails and paving stones and removing the barricades in the adjoining streets. According to Anatolia Press agency, one demonstrator was arrested in possession of 17 Molotov cocktails. About 300 to 400 activists of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) also tried to force their way into the square shouting slogans against the AKP.
The Governor of Istanbul, Muhammer Guler, who had banned the demonstration, the police forces and the Turkish government were all criticised for what was judged to be an “excessive use” of force. The left-wing Member of Parliament, Ufuk Uras, accused the AKP of “creating a republic of fear”. “They are trying to deprive the workers of their democratic rights with methods dating back to the cold war. A government that treated its workers in such away would not be able to last a single day in a Western democracy. This is inadmissible”.
Kaveh Azizpour, a Kurdish political prisoner, died on 23 May as a result of torture, according to his family.
Kaveh or Kawa Azizpour, 25 years of age, was arrested two years earlier for supporting the Kurdistan Democratic Party – Iran, which is banned in the country. According to the Iranian authorities he had been transferred from the Mahabad prison to Urmiah Hospital after a very serious cerebral haemorrhage (a stroke). He died after 20 days in a coma.
However his family states that this stroke was, in fact, the sequel of the tortures to which he had been subjected, as his brother Assad related to the newsletter of Amir Kabir University, Dastranj: “When Kaveh fell into a coma for the second time, he underwent an operation. However, the authorities, against the advice of the doctors and despite Kaveh’s critical condition, which required intensive care, transferred him to the Secret Service prison 48 hours after his operation”. Assad makes the point that this was his third stroke his brother had had — all occurring while in detention.
Furthermore, the Teheran Revolutionary Court has decided to try the Kurdish journalist Mohammad Sadegh Kabovand, in camera — a decision severely criticised by his lawyer, Masomeh Sotoudeh: “Such a decision can only be adopted for a trial if the arguments are likely to shock public morality, as in trials for rape”.
Masomeh Sotoudeh also points out he is very concerned about his client’s state of health. He is being held in Evin Prison, Teheran, but has not have any appropriate medical treatment or examination though he has been suffering from giddiness since 19 May. He is charged with activities “threatening national security”. Sadegh Kabovand was arrested on 1 July 2007.
Reporters sans Frontières denounces this decision, taken, according to the organisation, to prevent the press covering the case and revealing the irregularities.
On 3 May, the President of the Kurdistan Region, Masud Barzani, and his chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, met a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that had just published a report on freedom of the press in Iraqi Kurdistan. The delegation was led by Michael Massing, Director of CPJ, Joel Campagna, co-ordinator of the Programme for the Middle East and North Africa and Robert Mahoney, assistant director.
Massud Barzani welcomed the report by reaffirming his support for a free press. He also recognised that freedom of the press in his region had some “weak points” but that, on the whole, the journalists were working freely. He also pointed out the necessity of Kurdish journalists conforming to a professional code of ethics: “The Kurdistan Region has accomplished significant advances to improve freedom. Our long struggle, in the past, was one for freedom, not only for journalists but all the citizens of Kurdistan. We do not claim to be without faults and we know that we have several more stages to go through to reach complete freedom. I think that the press is free now, and that a law is needed regulating the profession”.
Masud Barzani was referring to the sharp opposition from the press that had arisen from a law passed by the Kurdish Parliament last December. The president had then asked the members of parliament to review the law that many Kurdish papers presented as detrimental to freedom of expression, even if, in fact, it was hardly different from similar clauses regarding the protection of private life or State Security in force in most democracies.
“Withdrawing the latest law shows that we want freedom of the press” explained Masud Barzani. “We do not want to impose restrictions on journalists but, at the same time, the journalists must also conform to professional rules and to their own ethics. Do not forget the environment in which we live and the culture of persecution that we have inherited from the old Baath regime, which, unfortunately, has left its mark on Kurdish society. I think that the law that is now being debated in the Kurdistan National Assembly will have to set clear lines to the journalists. Professional journalism requires more than just the ability to write. We consider that it is a respectable profession that the journalists must also respect and not let it be used by others or have recourse to defamation to serve private interests. The journalists are free to criticise — but their criticisms must be constructive and not defamatory”.
The Kurdish President added: “Personally I think that the press must be completely free but that the journalists must understand the situation in which we are living. If we compare ourselves with the United States, we have a long way to go. However, if we compare ourselves with this region and, above all, with where we were ten ears ago, we have accomplished a great deal of progress and are doing better and better”.
In general the relations between the political class and journalists in Kurdistan or between the independent press and the party organs are hardly warm, the first accusing the second of sowing a lack of professionalism while the second always suspect the first of trying to control them. The discussions with the CPJ also covered the existing regulations and penalties in force in other countries. The CPJ recognised that in most legal systems journalists could be sanctioned and sued in the courts and the NGO representatives present recognised the progress accomplished by the Kurdistan Region towards greater freedom.
On 5 May, some armed men killed by pistol shots, Sarwa Abdul-Wahab, 36 years old, lawyer, journalist and activist on support of the rights of journalists and the free-lance press. According to the police, the victim had left her house to walk to a market when two armed men jumped out of a car and tried to kidnap her. As she was resisting she was shot down with two bullets in the head. This attack does not seem accidental since Sarwa’s mother, who was accompanying her, told the Associated Press that she had begged the kidnappers to spare her daughter: “I begged them to kill me in her place. They pushed me aside saying that they had nothing against me”.
The lawyer also worked for a press agency close to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, according to the Nineveh authorities as well as for the satellite TV channel Salahaddin TV and other local papers. She was also a member of an Association for the Defence of Journalists, as pointed out by Yasir al-Hamadani, director of the Mosul branch of the Association, whose head office is in Baghdad: “Besides her work as a journalist, she was an activist, working with NGOs and a lawyer. We are terribly upset at losing her. She was very active and enthusiastic about her work”.
On 25 April last, another journalist, Jassim al-Batat, 38 years of age, was assassinated in Mosul. An Iraqi who originated from Basra, he worked for a local radio belonging to a Shiite party, the principal rival of Moqtada al-Sadr’s religious militia.
Since 2003, over 175 journalists and people employed in the media have been killed, according to the New York=based Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Reporters sans Frontières, for its part set the figure at 211 victims in the press and media as well as 14 journalists kidnapped, whose fate is still unknown. Hundreds of members of this profession have gone into exile, mainly to Syria and Jordan, after receiving death threats.
On 4 May, the wife of the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, narrowly escaped a bomb attack that wounded four of her bodyguards. An explosive charge was aimed at her car as she was going to the Baghdad National Theatre for the opening of the 6th Al-Mada Cultural Festival.