Every year, the degree to which Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, is accepted by the Turkish authorities is a pretty certain indictor of the way the Kurdish question will be treated by the government, which has alternated, since 2000, between periods of openness and repression.
Since 2011 and the beginning of 2012 have seen a worsening of breaches of human rights and of armed violence, as well as police and judicial intimidation directed against Kurdish elected representatives and political activists, intellectuals, journalists and academics, it is not surprising that the 2012 Newroz was more like a trial of strength between the government and the Kurdish population than a celebration of the arrival of Spring.
Indeed, this year the celebrations were “limited” by the governor of Diyarbekir, to the date of 21 March, which was a Wednesday, whereas the Kurdish municipalities and organisations, had mostly planned to organise concerts and rallies on the 18th, a Sunday, which is not a working day. However, the Turkish authorities, stating that Newroz is just on the 21st, used this date lag to ban any earlier demonstrations.
Yet, since Newroz is specifically set on the day of the spring equinox, it can, depending on the year, occur on the 20th or the 21st, in all countries where it is an official public holiday, be it in Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Georgia and a number of countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. As for the Spring holidays and celebrations, they can last a lot longer, stretching from one to three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan or Iran.
However, the ban was maintained by the local authorities while the BDP party stuck my its programme. Unsurprisingly there were outbreaks of violence. In Diyarbekir, the police used tear gas grenades and water cannons against groups of demonstrators who were waving the Kurdish flag and trying to reach the esplanade near the city walls. They were unable to stop the 5,000 strong march, according to AFP correspondents on the spot. Several clashes took place in the surrounding neighbourhoods and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the police.
In Istanbul, groups of Kurdish activists were stopped by the police as they were trying to reach Kazlicesm Square, where the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP, the main Kurdish political organisation in Turkey) had planned to organise the celebrations. In response, many set up barricades and threw stones at the police. A group of BDP Members of Parliament were dispersed by tear gas and water cannons. The Governor of Istanbul, Huseyin Avni Mutlu reported 7 injured, including 2 police and 106 arrests.
Clashes continued throughout Newroz week . On 20 March, in Batman, violent clashes between police and demonstrators caused 15 injured, one of them seriously. At Cizre (Sirnak Province) and at Yuksekova, several police came under fire from assault rifles and one of them, seriously wounded, died in hospital.
However, these acts of violence were not limited to street fighting as on 21 March other police forces were confronted by PKK fighters near Mount Cudî (Sirnak Province): 6 of them were killed and 5 others wounded. This was during mountain mopping up operations carried out jointly by the army and the police, with air and helicopter support. Political commentators stressed, in this connection, the increasing use of police in this kind of military operation, hitherto undertaken by troops and the gendarmerie.
A few days later, 15 women, all PKK fighters, were killed during clashes with “village guardians” (pro-government militia) at Bitlis.
The outcome of this Spring celebration thus marks the end of the AKP governments moderate “opening” to the Kurdish question and rather would announce the renewal of military strategies and police repression in Turkish Kurdistan.
In any case, the year 2011 was a very black one for human rights in Turkey. On 2 March, the Diyarbekir office of the Human Rights Association (IHD) published a report on Human Rights violations committed at local level. In the course of 2011, 29,366 such violations occurred as against 23,520 in 2010. The report notes the market increase in the use of firearms against civilians and a spectacular increase in the number of arrests and of the use of torture and inhuman treatment.
The Secretary of the Diyarbekir IHD, Raci Bilici, described the year 2011 as one of “intensified war” instead of a search for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. The present climate reminds him of the 1990s, in which the Kurdish regions had become “a concentration camp” for the politicians, journalists, lawyers, students, trade unionists and human rights defenders, nearly all of whom ended up behind bars if they were not simply assassinated.
Raci Bilici also pointed out the increase recourse to torture and ill treatment in the prisons. The State is also accused of having provided insufficient aid to the homeless people and other victims of the Van earthquake, whereas the inhabitants had received considerable assistance from the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The figures of the IHD report for 2011 are as follows:
- 149 members of the security forces killed and 295 wounded by bullets
- 189 PKK fighters are said to have been killed and 6 wounded.
- regarding civilian victims, 129 people were killed and 259 wounded in attacks by “persons unknown”, extra-judicial executions and violence with firearms. Mines and bomb attacks caused another 6 deaths and 49 injured.
- 45 people died of wounds through neglect or faults by the State by the organs.
- 1917 people were jailed and 6306 taken into detention.
- 1555 cases of torture or inhuman treatment have been recorded
- 1421 cases of breaches of the human rights of prisoners have been recorded, 932 people were wounded by the police during demonstrations.
- 4496 asylum seekers and immigrants have been detained
- 4 villages have been burnt down and forcibly evacuated
- finally complaints have been registered regarding 1699 people who have “disappeared” or been found in 111 mass graves.
The interminable conflict between Iraq and the Kurdish Region over oil operations is continuing and following the lines of the overall political and diplomatic relations between Irbil and Baghdad — which have also tended to become more acrimonious.
Last autumn a major US company, Exxon Mobile, had triggered off a sharp controversy by announcing it had signed a contract with Iraqi Kurdistan covering exploratory drilling of six oilfields, without sought prior agreement from the Baghdad, which the central government always demands. The latter had threatened the to cancel a contract between Exxon and Iraq regarding the West Qurna oilfield in Southern Iraq.
The Americans had adopted a cautious and indecisive attitude, saying that the Iraqi demands would be examined. At the end of February, an ExxonMobil representative had a meeting with Hussein Sharristani, now Deputy Prime Minister while still remaining the Energy Minister, whose intransigent attitude on this question has not varied by a jot. The American company had assured the Minister that it would make its decision public “in the coming days”.
At the beginning of March, it was the turn of the French company, Total, to announce it had contacted with the Kurds regarding oil contracts. However, Christophe de Margerie, the Chairman of the company, asserted that nothing had yet been signed, in a press statement as he was visiting Kuwait for the 13th International Energy Forum, on 13 March:
“Kurdistan is part of Iraq and many firms are investing in Iraqi Kurdistan, so I do not see why Total cannot do the same. We are thus looking at opportunities, we are discussing, but we have not yet finalised anything”.
He also, moreover, indicated that he was considering making agreements with companies already having permits to explore for hydrocarbons in Kurdistan so as to take part in their prospecting projects but “in all cases, the agreement of the Kurdistan government is needed”.
On 15 March, the President of the Kurdish Region, Massud Barzani, accused Iraq, in a communiqué on his official web site, of minimising oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Kurdistan has been exporting 90,000 to 100,000 barrels a day since the start of the year, but Baghdad states that exports are only 65,000 barrels a day and that this has caused “daily financial losses” (…) If the Oil Ministry’s statements are correct, this means that 25 to 35,000 barrels a day are being lost on the way to the market (…) Kurdistan considers that this discrepancy must immediately be the subject of an enquiry, in case someone is allocating the difference to themselves”.
The Kurdish Presidency also complains that, since May 2011, the Central government has been blocking payment to oil companies and points out that Baghdad owes the Kurdish Region over a billion dollars for 2011 and that in 2012, “not a single dollar has been paid for exports”.
On the same day, in a speech made in Irbil, Massud Barzani condemned in scathing terms the Iraqi governments attitude to the Kurds’ successes:
“The leaders in the central government who refuse to accept these contracts are failures who have been unable to give Iraq what we are giving in Kurdistan. They want us down to their level. The problem is not these contracts nor is it the Constitution but just that they do not want the region to develop”.
Two days later, an Iraqi government spokesman announced that Exxon, in a letter to the Iraqi Oil Ministry, was giving up the contract signed wit h the Kurds. However, this news was straight away denied by the Kurdish Presidency, through its General Secretary Fuad Hussein, who pointed out, to AFP, that “the ExxonMibile oil company is still working in Kurdistan and has made not statement to the Kurdish government regarding any freezing of its activity in Kurdistan. Meetings are constantly taking place between the parties concerned in the region and those of the American Group”.
On 20 March, on the occasion of Newroz, the national Festival of the Kurdish New Year, Massud Barzani sharpened his criticisms of the Iraqi government, this time directing them more specifically at t he Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki. He was accused of wanting to concentrate all State power in his own hands and of, in particular, taking control of the Army. Thus the President considered that the Irbil agreements between the Sunni and Shiite parties that followed the general elections of 2010 had “lost any meaning” and that the partnership between the two Arab political blocks under Kurdish mediation, was now “totally inexistent”.
“We are witnessing an attempt to set up an army of 1 million men devoted to a single person. Where in the world can you see person who is at once Prime Minister, Head of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defence, Minister of the Interior, Head of the Secret Services and head of the National Security Council?
Indeed, the Ministries of Defence and of the Interior, assumed as an “interim measure” by Nuri al-Maliki to allow time for agreement on nominations, are still vacant and the Prime Minister’s opponents accuse him of thus seeking to concentrate the powers of security and national defence as had the former Raïs Saddam Hussein.
The Kurdish President also recalled that the question of Kirkuk and the other regions that were due to chose their status by referendum was still in suspense and that the funds that should have been allocated to the Kurdish Region for maintaining an army of Peshmergas had not yet been paid.
Returning to the issue of the oil contracts, Massud Barzani declared that none of the agreements signed by the Region with foreign companies was against the Constitution and repeated that the only reason for Baghdad’s opposition was its refusal to see Kurdistan “go forward”.
“It is time to say enough! The present situation is, in our view, unacceptable and I call on all Iraqi political leaders to try to find a solution as a matter of urgency. Failing that, we will turn to our people to take all the decisions it many judge appropriate”, concluded the Kurdish leader in terms that have been widely interpreted as a barely veiled threat to declare the independence of Kurdistan.
A week later, on 26 March, the Kurdish government, returning to the oil issue, threatened to suspend its exports of crude oil if Baghdad did not settle its indebtedness to the Region. Another object of contention: the Central government seems on the point of reaching an agreement with BP. The latter hopes to increase the production of oil from Kirkuk — but since this region is being claimed by the Kurds, the latter judges any such agreement “illegal”.
A sign that al-Maliki’s popularity is at its lowest ebb — even if the Iraqi man in the street moderately disapproves the separatist tenor of the remarks and considers them unrealistic, it considers Barzani’s criticisms of the present government quite justified. The inhabitants of Baghdad also complain about the dilapidation of infrastructures, the water and electricity distribution services and the generalised corruption that puts a brake on any development.
Since Kofi Annan’s visit to Syria has produced no concrete results on the spot, demonstrations and violent repression are continuing in Syria, specially as the “Syria Spring” will, this month, be celebrating it first anniversary.
At Qamichlo, according to the Syrian Observer of Human Rights (SOHR) tens of thousands of Kurds marched to celebrate another anniversary — that of 12 March 2004, when clashes took place between the Kurds and Arab militia, armed by the Baath and the Security forces, that caused 40 deaths.
According to SOHR, the processions, that waved Kurdish flags came under fire from the security forces, using real bullets and at least 30 people were wounded..
Videos, put on line, show demonstrators in another Kurdish town, Amoude, climbing onto the roofs of a Security service building, waving the Kurdish flag and the former Syrian flag prior to the Baath seizing power. A statue of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current President, being thrown from the top of the building to be smashed and trampled on by the crowd.
Despite all this, the President of SOHR, Rami AbdelRahman, points out that the Syrian regime “still treats the Kurds with caution, and tries, as much as possible to avoid clashes with them, fearing really violent confrontation”.
Since Newroz day is traditionally an opportunity for political demonstrations against the regime in office, it was especially celebrated this year by the Syrian Kurds, as is testified by the many videos put on line.
In Aleppo, which has a very large Kurdish population, a very big rally took place, accompanied by shouts of “Azadi” (freedom in Kurdish) and “Religion for God — the Nation for everyone”, “Our Syrian Revolution is for Justice, dignity and freedom”. The demonstrators also shouted “Clear off” to President Bashar al=Assad and “No more studying no more school till the President falls”.
At Qamichlo, pictures of the Kurdish leader Machaal Temo, assassinated last October ware brandished, accompanied by songs calling for the overthrow of the regime, and the same occurred at Hassaké. The order town of Ras al-Ain also saw the old pre-Baath Syrian flag brought out.
While the Syrian authorities have not yet massively repressed the Kurdish demonstrations, the assassination of individuals by “persons unknown” have not, however, ceased as well as the arresting and torturing of opponents. On 25 March, the body of a Kurdish activist from Derbassiyeh (Hassaké) Ciwan Khalaf Mohammad al-Qatna, 22 years of age, was found a few hours after he had been kidnapped by 4 masked men, who are suspected of being members of the secret services. Ciwan Khalef, who was a literature student at Aleppo University, was Machal Temmo’s nephew, and the Kurdish opposition and his family accuse the State of being behind both murders. A member of the family stated to AKNews that Ciwan Khalef was an active member of the Youth Organisation of the Syrian Revolution as well as of the Derbassiyeh Free Youth and that his kidnapping and execution were the work of the security forces. He pointed out that the body had been found mutilated.
The Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (CAAT) has published “A World of Torturers: a report on the continued practice of torture in several countries in the course of 2011”. Amongst the countries recorded was Turkey.
In a chapter devoted to this country, it was stated outright that “a substantial part of the attacks on human rights committed in the country by the Turkish authorities is linked with the political conflict between them and the Kurdish people”, .since the foundation of the Republic
Based on data provided by IHD for Turkey, CAAT ’s report shows that, after having dropped between 2004 and 2007, “recourse to torture and ill treatment has considerably increased since 2008” and that “the principal victims of torture and ill treatment are Kurds”.
Kurdish victims of torture are, or are suspected of being, members of organisations the authorities accuse of being affiliated to the PKK, such as the BDP party and the Union of Communists of Kurdistan. They can also be people arrested in the course of demonstrations. Most of them are tried and sentenced by virtue of articles of the anti-terrorist laws, such as Article 220 and 314 of the Penal code, against “groups intending to commit crimes against State security or against constitutional order or its smooth operation or against the law governing demonstrations and public assemblies”.
It also stresses that many minors accused of having thrown stones at policemen or of having taken part in demonstrations suffer the same ill treatment as adults, even though, on 22 July 2010 Parliament amended the ant-terrorist laws so that youths under the age of 15 years of age could no longer be sued and sentenced like adults for offences related to terrorism.
An amend to the law on the powers and obligations of the police, dated June 2007, allows police to resort to firearms while capturing a suspect or when they meet “resistance that can only be overcome by physical force”. In fact, these circumstances are often quoted cited “in an extensive manner against Kurds”. Acts of brutality are now frequently carried out by the police in their vehicles or in the streets since cameras have been installed in detention centres. Those police stations in Turkey where they resort to torture the most are those attached to the anti-terrorist units in the Kurdish regions like those at Diyarbekir or Adana.
In the detention centres, much of the torture and ill treatment is carried out by the gendarmes and prison warders, mainly against political prisoners, be they children or adults. The prisons at Kürkçüler, of Ceyhanm (in Adana), of Diyarbekir , Erzurum, and Konya are the ones where this is most frequent.
Torture methods have altered with a reduction of the methods that leave the most visible after effects (falaka, electric shocks, Palestinian hanging) in favour of less visible ones like “frequently repeated slaps, stripping naked, sleep and food deprivation, spraying with cold water, threats of rape, pretended executions, isolation, exposure to extreme cold as well as loud music or screaming. The same methods are used on the children”. Regarding the Kurds, the purpose is principally to extort confessions that would enable their being sentenced for terrorism.
Finally, Kurdish women who have been subjected to rape while in detention often choose to be silent about this for fear of reprisals from their families, who might resort to “honour crimes”.
CAAT recalls that “Article 90 of the Constitution gives legal force to the international conventions, in particular the convention against torture, ratified in 1988” and that “as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is bound by the European Convention for protecting fundamental human rights and freedoms. Consequently it is liable to being brought before the European Court for Human Rights, where it has, indeed, already been found guilty several times under article 3 of the Convention that forbids torture”.
In its own constitution, the Turkish State condemns torture and ill treatment. Thus article 94 states: “Any public official who carries out any act to any person that is incompatible with human dignity and who causes that person any physical or mental suffering, affects that person’s perception or his capacity to act according to his will or who insults him, shall be imprisoned for a period of 3 to 12 years”.
In principle the sentence incurred is eight to fifteen years if the victim is “a child, a person physically or mentally incapable of defending themselves or a pregnant woman” or else “a civil servant or a lawyer [targeted] because of duties”. If sexual violence is committed, the sentence is a minimum of ten years. In Article 95, there is a provision that if the victim should die, the sentence could be one of life imprisonment”.
However, a report of the Turkish Parliamentary Enquiry Committee on Human Rights, showed that, between 2003 and 2008, “none of the 35 trials against 431 police officers in Istanbul for torture or ill treatment resulted in any sentencing”. More often, the officers were charged under Article 256 of the Penal Code for “using excessive force” or for “intentional assault and battery” Art 86), for which the penalties provided are between one and a half and four more often for often and a half years jail. Furthermore, the officers tried are more often charged under Article 51 of the Penal Code: “any prison sentence of under two years can be commuted to a suspended sentence”.
Moreover, the majority of enquiries into cases of torture are entrusted to the police themselves and not to a public prosecutor. The police, instead of carrying out such enquiries, retaliate by filing complaints against their victims for “resisting the security forces” (Art 265) or for “defaming the police” (Art. 125).
The Kurdish singer, Keyhan Kalhor, originally from Kermanshah, and a master player of the kemençe (a kind of hurdy-gurdy) has introduced an innovation in his new album, “I will not stand alone” (Harmonia Mundi), recorded by in February 2011 in Teheran. This time he plays the shah-kaman, a kemençe altered to his specifications, with five strings instead of four and with seven resonating cords that vibrate when the main strings are touched. The creation of this instrument was done jointly with the Austrian lute-maker Peter Biffin. He is accompanied in this album by Ali Bahrami Fard on the santour.
Regarding the album itself, Kahn Kahlo pointed out that it conjured up “ one of the hardest moments in my life , when the shadows of darkness seemed to have the upper hand ”, alluding to the political upheavals Iran has been experiencing since 2008, when Kahn Kahlo himself was arrested on at least two occasions.