While the Turkish president continues his ruthless repression of the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party, and uses all possible means to ensure more and more control over Turkish society, not hesitating to use the pandemic situation of COVID-19 to do so, the non-HDP opposition, the “Alliance of the Nation”, remains ambiguous by maintaining division. Its members, the CHP (Kemalist, former single party) and IYI (“Good Party”, a split of the far-right MHP party having refused the alliance with the AKP, the Islamist party of the Turkish president) refuse any solidarity with the HDP. By taking up the discourse of Erdoğan according to which this party “must distance itself from the PKK”, thus reinforcing its strategy which aims at delegitimising the HDP, they contribute to the observed increase of anti-Kurdish racism in the country.
However, the HDP, situating its action in an exclusively political framework, has always refused to call for violence – even though the authorities have not refrained from resorting to it in an increasingly extreme manner. In a lengthy interview given from his cell to the Cumhuriyet newspaper and published on 21st July, HDP former co-president, Selahattin Demirtaş, pointed out the obvious: if the opposition really wants to beat Erdoğan in the next elections, it will have to accept some form of cooperation with the HDP at some point, even if the HDP does not ask for a formal alliance: “In my opinion, it is necessary to reach a consensus on a new constitution, a democratic parliamentary system, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and an independent and impartial judiciary”, he said (Ahval). For Demirtaş, the opposition must stop playing into the hands of power and reconnect with the public to develop its own proposals through various democratic consultations. Asked about the Kurdish movement in Turkey, Demirtaş compared it to the African-American movement in the US after the murder of George Floyd, clearly preferring to anchor the HDP to the left rather than reduce it to a Kurdish movement: “Today, the biggest cause of poverty, unemployment, hunger, misery, death, war and exploitation is the neoliberal capitalist system. The only antidote to capitalism is socialism”, he said (Ahval). A few days later, on the 27th, the court decided to keep Demirtaş and the former co-president of the HDP, Figen Yüksekdağ, in detention.
As for violence, it is primarily used by the State. While the Turkish constitution explicitly prohibits torture, cases and complaints are on the rise. According to the Human Rights Foundation (TİHV)’s count, one person out of 500 has been a victim of torture. One of the latest cases is that of women’s rights defender and former HDP co-mayor of Edremit, Sevil Rojbin Çetin: after breaking her door at 5am, the police released two dogs in her house that bit her legs. Far from having her treated, they then tortured her for more than three hours, insulting her, threatening her verbally and with a weapon, tearing her clothes and then photographing her half-naked before posting the images on social networks. An investigation has been opened... against her lawyer, for having published photos of her injuries in the press! Lawyer Eren Keskin, vice-president of the Human Rights Association (İHD), told Al-Monitor that torture of women “in detention and during arrest” had become “commonplace”. Perpetrators of torture are never punished. On 16th July, Rojbin Çetin, still in prison, was charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation”.
While the repression of women has recently intensified and, as Amnesty International points out, “during the COVID-19 pandemic, several high-profile cases of murder and rape of women [...] particularly by their spouses or ex-spouses, took place in Turkey” (27 murders and 23 suspicious deaths in June alone), recent statements calling for Turkey’s withdrawal from the “Istanbul Convention” (Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women) are cause for concern. While Turkey was the first country to ratify it and it has been in force since 2014, several AKP deputies have criticised it for “disrupting the family structure”, and the party’s vice-president, Numan Kurtulmuş, said that LGBT people were seeking “protection behind this Convention”. On the 23rd, the deputy and spokeswoman of the HDP Women’s Council Ayşe Acar described in a press conference these statements as unacceptable. She recalled several recent cases of rape of Kurdish women by Turkish non-commissionned officers, in particular the attempt against a 13-year-old girl at Şırnak and the rape of another, 17-year-old, girl in Batman, accusing the AKP-MHP government coalition of waging “a special method of war” (Kurdistan au Féminin).
At the same time, Mr Erdoğan continues his drive to bring under control all social structures that pose a risk to his personal power. After journalists, he now turns his attention to lawyers. On 11th July, after four days of discussions, the Parliament adopted a highly controversial reform of the bar associations. For the AKP and its far-right ally, the MHP, it is a question, as the Head of State expressed it, of “putting in place a more democratic, more pluralist structure of the bars, with a high level of representativeness”. But when an autocrat talks about democracy, one should be wary... The text authorises the foundation of several bars in each county with more than 5.000 lawyers – i.e. Istanbul (48.000), Ankara (18.000) and Izmir (10.000) –, on condition that each of these new bars can gather at least 2.000 members... For lawyers opposed to the reform, under the guise of democracy, the aim is, by following a technique already used with trade unions or other professional organisations, to weaken existing bars by bypassing them to create new ones that can be populated by government supporters. The law also puts an end to the system of proportional representation of bar associations in the Turkish Bar Association (TBB): each bar association will have four delegates, plus one for every 5.000 members (Le Monde). With this new system, the smaller bars, located in more rural areas where the AKP has more sway, will see their weight increase, and the three largest, Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, will lose the relative majority they currently enjoy (221 delegates out of 477). 78 of Turkey’s 80 bar associations have signed a joint declaration opposing the reform and have organised demonstrations before the vote in Parliament. To no avail. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) notes that this system, inspired by that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will split lawyers along political lines, thus allowing “prosecutors and judges to favor defense teams comprising members of pro-government bar associations, punishing lawyers who belong to independent bar associations”. For the FDD, this reform “will further erode the rule of law and due process in Turkey”.
Significantly, on the same day, the parliament also passed a law authorising the arming of the bekci, the “neighbourhood guards”. This police reinforcement force, which was integrated into the police in 2008 after decades of independent existence, was separated from it again in 2016, in particular to make up for the absence of many police officers sent to Kurdistan. The opposition fears that the government will use these bekci as a new militia where to recruit its supporters (The Independent).
The government also continued its harassment of all Kurdish political activity. At the beginning of the month, the former HDP co-mayor of Batman, Songül Korkmaz, arrested with several members of her municipal council, was sentenced in Diyarbakir to six years and three months in prison for “membership in an illegal organisation”. In Ankara, a rally to commemorate the Sivas massacre (which killed 37 people in 1993, mainly Alevis Kurds, in the arson of their hotel) was dispersed by the police and three of the participants arrested. Nine members of the HDP Youth Assembly were also arrested. In Erzurum, two members of the DTP, Bermal Birtek and Ergin Balta, were sentenced to ten years and six months in prison. The following week, several women were imprisoned in Diyarbakir before being charged, for the most part, with “membership” in and “propaganda” for a “terrorist organisation”. On the 8th, arrests were also carried out against Betül Yaşar, co-mayor of Diyadin district (Ağrı) and members of the HDP in Izmir (5 people arrested), Urfa (3 arrests), and Gaziantep (33 arrests) (WKI).
On the 13th, three people were sentenced to life imprisonment for a 2016 attack on a police vehicle in Istanbul that had killed 12 people, six policemen and six civilians. Four other suspects were released under judicial supervision. The attack was claimed by the “Kurdistan Freedom Falcons” (TAK), a splinter group of the PKK (AFP).
On the 15th, the HDP announced at a press conference the publication of a damning report on the situation, entitled Anti-Kurdish Hostility during the Pandemic (Salgin döneminde Kürt düşmanliği, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Gy0lB9JKtVWnodXRzupLBTcddAj4vjPl/). Covering the period from 11th March (date of the official confirmation of the first case of COVID-19 in Turkey) to 30th June 2020, the report looks back at the abusive dismissals and replacements by administrators of thirty co-mayors and also denounces the use of “curfews imposed as part of measures to combat the pandemic” as “pretext for violence by the police and neighbourhood guards”. He cites several cases of citizens “going out to buy bread, take out their rubbish or sitting in their garden [...] insulted, forced to lie on the ground and handcuffed behind their backs or held at gunpoint”. “According to the data we were able to obtain [...] during these three and a half months, when the epidemic was at its worst, at least 84 people were subjected to torture and ill-treatment”.
On the 16th, Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel was sentenced in his absence (he returned to Germany in February 2018 after a year in prison) to two years, nine months and 22 days in prison for “terrorist propaganda” for the PKK. A new indictment was also launched against him for “insulting the Head of state”: he had described Mr. Erdoğan as a “putschist” (Le Figaro, AFP). On the 18th, the same charge was brought against the female Kurdish political prisoner Sebahat Tuncel for having described in a speech the Turkish president as “totally misogynous”. Tuncel, a former co-president of the DBP (Party of Democratic Regions), arrested in October 2016 and sentenced in February 2019 to 15 years in prison for terrorism following other speeches, now faces a further four years in prison. In 2019, 26.115 people were investigated for “insulting the Head of state”, of whom 2.462 were convicted and imprisoned...
On the 20th, several marches organised by the HDP with sometimes the ESP (Socialist Party of the Oppressed) were held to commemorate the attack in Suruç, which had left thirty-three people dead and a hundred injured on 20th July 2015 in this Kurdish town opposite Kobanê. In Ankara, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the rally, which was attended by 300 participants. In Istanbul, seventeen participants were arrested (WKI). On the 25th, the 800th Saturday mothers’ rally in Istanbul Galatasaray Square was attacked by the police. Three relatives of missing persons, including an elderly mother, were arrested (Kurdistan au Féminin). In the last week of the month, other members of the HDP were arrested in Diyarbakir and Şanlıurfa (WKI).
Power definitely has a problem with historical memory. On the 30th, a bill submitted by HDP deputy Murat Sansac proposing the creation of a memorial for the 1930 Zilan massacre was rejected. Sansac had submitted on 13th July, the anniversary of the massacre, a bill calling for the cancellation of the construction of a dam that would drown the site where nearly 15.000 Kurdish civilians were killed when their villages were burned. The Speaker of Parliament, Mustafa Sentop, rejected the bill because of the inclusion of the words “massacre” and “Kurdish”, saying it contains “rude and offensive remarks”, adding that the bill could be considered if these terms are removed (Duvar).
At the end of the month, a former teacher at the Kurdish language department of Mardin Artuklu University, Selim Temo, revealed that by decision of the Higher Education Council (YÖK), students in the Kurdish language departments of Turkish universities are now no longer allowed to submit their dissertations in Kurdish. Also, courses will have to be taught exclusively in Turkish! Apart from Artuklu, these departments exist in three universities: Dicle (Tigris), in Diyarbakir, Bingöl and Muş. Temo himself was dismissed from his teaching position by an emergency decree in 2017 because he had signed the “Academics for Peace” petition.
The month of July was also marked by the decision, announced on the 10th by the Turkish President, to transform the former Basilica of Saint Sophia back into a mosque. This followed the invalidation a few hours earlier by the Council of State, seized upon complaint by a Muslim association close to the AKP, of the 1934 decree which had transformed the Byzantine building into a museum, on the grounds that, as Sainte-Sophie had become a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror, in 1453, it “[could] not be used for purposes other than those assigned to it by the Sultan”... This was clearly a symbolic political decision designed to restore his image in a context of political, economic and health crisis. Reactions abroad have generally been negative: UNESCO, and also Washington, the European Union and Greece have “regretted” this decision. For its part, the HDP said: “Saint Sophia is part of the cultural and historical heritage of mankind. Transforming it into a mosque is a mistake” and accused the Council of State of having served as a “propaganda machine” for the AKP (WKI). In an article entitled “Hagia Sophia is open for prayers, but not to Kurds”, Al-Monitor reported that during the first prayers held in the building on the 24th, the government had excluded the HDP from the guest list. HDP MP Mahmut Togrul reminded Al-Monitor that since 2015, the HDP had been excluded from almost all national gatherings. In fact, HDP members cannot even participate in televised debates on the HDP!
Finally, on the 28th, A. Öcalan’s lawyers announced that they had filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights about the isolation imposed on him and three other inmates in the prison island of Imralı. With the rejection of their request for a visit last June by the Constitutional Court, they had exhausted all remedies before the Turkish courts. The last visit they were able to obtain was in May 2019, after a previous one in 2011, and the other three detainees have not yet met their lawyers since their transfer to the island in 2015 (Ahval).
Tension continues to rise in an Iran where the coronavirus is still wreaking havoc and where a building at the Natanz nuclear site was almost totally destroyed on 2nd July by a strong explosion. Under tension, the authorities are repressing their population, and in particular the Kurds, ever more harshly with sentences and executions.
On the 2nd, as Iran restarted its uranium enrichment activities, three-quarters of the Natanz centrifuge site was destroyed by an explosion that could delay the nuclear programme by two years, according to the New York Times. As for the causes, while an Iranian MP spoke of a technical problem, experts are rather hesitating between a bomb and a cyber attack. A second explosion seems to have occurred the next day in a missile base...
Regarding the coronavirus, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which regularly publishes its own figures on the epidemic in the country, said it had calculated that the number of deaths in 342 cities in Iran now exceeded 64.800. Concerning the partially or totally Kurdish provinces, the PMOI figures for that date were 1.795 in Western Azerbaijan, 1.320 in Kurdistan (Kordestan), 1.655 in Kermanshah, and 2.385 in Lorestan (no figures for Ilam). The Arabic-speaking province of Khuzestan is still seriously affected with 4.950 deaths (NCRI). For comparison, the official number of deaths at that date was 11.260... However, a member of the National Coronavirus Control Centre, Massoud Mardani, told the ISNA agency on the 4th that through random tests, it was possible to estimate that “18 million Iranians, or about 20% of the country’s population, had contracted the disease”... Official television announced the reinstatement of coronavirus restrictions in public places from the 5th on.
On the 5th, a day for which PMOI compiled more than 65.200 deaths, the IRNA agency reported that in Ilam province, “from June 21st to July 1st, the number of positive cases [had] doubled [...] and [was increasing] exponentially”. According to the provincial governor, the province is almost totally in the red (NCRI). The virus was also circulating in prisons, particularly in Urumieh: during the first week of July, more than a hundred inmates were infected, while the government continued to imprison Kurdish activists (WKI).
On the 12th, PMOI published a number of 69.800 deaths in 342 cities… On the 29th, the country’s Assembly of Medical Associations published on its website an open letter to President Rohani, some of whose signatories were politicians and ministers, to warn of a real disaster to come if no radical measures are taken: “There must be a strict ban on mourning celebrations and religious ceremonies ... as well as large gatherings such as entrance exams without meeting the necessary conditions, and very strict controls must be attached to this ban”, the text says, among other things. On the 30th, the Deputy Health Minister said that, in Tehran province alone, 710 coronavirus patients had been hospitalized the day before... On the 31st, while PMOI gave a new estimate of more than 80.100 deaths, the Health Ministry spokeswoman said that “all regions of the country [were] infected with the coronavirus” (IRNA).
In the province of Kurdistan, clashes took place on the 16th in the Hawraman district, near the village of Bolbar, between pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and bassij (a paramilitary group of voluntary Islamic auxiliaries) and a “counter-revolutionary group” which, according to the IRNA agency, was not specified, but described as “affiliated with global arrogance”, a way of referring to the West. The Hengaw human rights organisation reported that a Kurdish opposition group had been involved in the engagement without suffering any casualties, and that two members of the Iranian military group had been killed and two others wounded (Kurdistan-24).
The kolbars, cross-border Kurdish porters, continue to pay with their lives for their attempts to provide for themselves and their families. During the second week of July, also in the Hawraman region, Iranian border guards shot down several horses or mules used by the kolbars to transport their goods. Three porters were also shot dead by Iranian security forces: one near Sardacht, without warning, another in an ambush of a group near Nowdeshah (Kermanshah), and another near Piranshahr. Three others were wounded near Urmia. Turkish security forces also killed a kolbar near the Chaldiran district. On the 20th, the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw announced that two brothers had been killed two months apart, the first on 24th May and his surviving younger brother on 9th July. In addition, a shepherd was killed by mortar fire from the Pasdaran near Piranshahr, the second shepherd to be killed in a fortnight (WKI). Meanwhile, three Kurds were killed by mines from the Iran-Iraq war in the Mehran district (Ilam). On the 27th, five other porters were wounded in an ambush near Baneh. In the same town, ten Kurdish activists were sentenced to three months in prison, 25 million rials in fines (around €550) and 25 lashes for protesting against the killing of two kolbars by security forces in 2018 (WKI).
More generally, the campaign of repression against Kurdish activists continued. In mid-July, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) estimated that the regime had executed no less than fifteen Kurdish political prisoners since last March. On 1st July, the Etelaat (Intelligence) arrested three people in Mahabad, then another in a village near that city, Goyak Tepe. On the 3rd, another Kurd was arrested after a raid on his home in Naghadeh. Ali Sakani, lawyer for a political prisoner sentenced to death, was also arrested. A Kurdish environmental defender, Fateh Mohammadi, was also arrested in Javanrud earlier this month, along with five others, including a 16-year-old in Mahabad. On the 11th, a political prisoner from Piranshahr, Abdulwahid Ara, committed suicide in his cell in Naghadeh after being sentenced to 11 years in prison for “membership of a Kurdish opposition party”. He just had been denied provisional release on health grounds.
July 14th was a particularly dark day in terms of repression. First, it was announced that two Kurdish political prisoners, Diako Rassulzadeh and Sabir Sheikh Abdollah, had been executed in Urmia prison. Arrested in 2013, accused of belonging to Komala and of having prepared a bomb attack that struck a military parade in 2010 in Mahabad, they had been tortured for a whole year by the Etelaat of the city of Mahabad until they made a confession and were sentenced to death in 2017 for “hostility to God”. “These two young men were sentenced to death after a very unfair trial based on confessions obtained under torture and ill-treatment”, said Amnesty International (Kurdistan-24). Their execution came 10 years after the commander of the Pasdaran land force, Mohammad Pakpour, said the real perpetrators of the 2010 bombing had been killed.
Then, just a few hours after the announcement of the execution of Abdullah and Rassulzadeh, the spokesman for the judiciary, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, announced that the Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences of three young demonstrators arrested last November, Amirhossein Moradi (26), Saeed Tamjidi (28) and Mohammad Rajabi (26). The announcement triggered an unprecedented flood of Twitter messages from Iran and abroad, calling for the execution to be quashed: 1,2 million in just a few hours. Amnesty International, in particular, denounced an “unfair trial”, as the condemned “said they were tortured by being beaten, electrocuted and hung upside down”. Finally, later the same day, it was announced that Zara Mohammadi, tried in Sanandaj on 17th February, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her crime: teaching the Kurdish language to children. After being accused of cooperating with a Kurdish opposition party, she was convicted of “forming a group [...] to disrupt national security”. However, Nojîn, the cultural and social association which Mohammadi had shared the leadership of for seven years, is perfectly legal since it has an official authorisation from the Interior Ministry. Apart from organising Kurdish language courses in various towns, it has also played an important role in recent months in assisting the people affected by the floods in Lorestan. Her interrogators denied Mohammadi access to her medicines and threatened to attack her family if she did not cooperate. Several other members of Nojîn were also arrested (Hengaw).
Also in Sanandaj, lawyer and activist Farhad Mohammadi, arrested in November 2017, was sentenced to six years in prison for “crimes against national security” (WKI). On the 21st, four young Kurds from Baneh, aged 17 to 20, were sentenced to 16 years in prison for burning a poster of the commander of the Al-Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, killed in Baghdad by an American strike. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK) reported that in Sardasht three Kurdish men were arrested on charges of “membership of a Kurdish opposition party”, and that Etelaat had also arrested one person.
Another name to be added to the sinister list of executions is Kamil Qadri Eqdem. Originally from Piranshahr, he was hanged on the morning of the 22nd in the central prison of Naghadeh where he was detained, despite a demonstration in his favour in front of the prison. According to Hengaw, he was the sixth Kurdish political prisoner executed in a week in the prisons of Kermanshah, Urmia and Naghadeh.
Finally, at the end of the month, many other Kurds, both men and women, were arrested or convicted in various cities in Kurdistan of Iran on charges of “cooperation with” or “membership in” a Kurdish opposition party: a 23-year-old man, Siawesh Rojkhoun, was arrested in Mahabad, a woman previously arrested by Etelaat with her daughter in Urmia, Shanaz Sadiqi, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and in Sardasht, Dara Rashidi was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Protesters for different reasons were also punished: Kurdish activist Foad Enayati was sentenced in Sanandaj to 76 lashes for protesting against the Turkish invasion of Rojava in October 2019, and Khalil Husseini for protesting on social media against executions. In Bokan, Fatima Dawand was sentenced to five years in prison for organising anti-government demonstrations in August 2019…
On the 28th, environmental activist Rashid Hassanzada was sentenced to prison in Oshnavieh for “meetings and plans against national security”.
July began in Iraq with the assassination on the 6th, by gunshot and in the street, of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a recognised expert of the jihadist movement and a virulent critic of the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. They had already, like ISIS, threatened him on several occasions, accusing him of being pro-American. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Qadhimi, who had worked with him when he was still head of the intelligence services, promised a transparent investigation. But this assassination is a challenge to his authority and also a clear warning to him: a fortnight ago, when he ordered the arrest of 14 members of Kata’ib Hezbollah, suspected of being responsible for the rocket attacks on Baghdad’s Green Zone, Hashimi publicly supported him and received threats from the organisation (The Guardian).
At the same time, Iraq also had to deal with the explosion of COVID-19 following the reopening of the border with Iran last May. The epidemic threatens to overwhelm the country’s capabilities. On 1st July, the Ministry of Health announced 2.415 new cases and 107 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 2.050. This was just the beginning of a long series of announcements during which the number of deaths each day exceeded 100 and the number of new cases exceeded 2.000: 110 deaths and 2.184 new cases on the 2nd, 106 and 2.334 on the 4th, 118 and again more than 2.000 on the 7th. On the 13th, with 100 new deaths and 2.229 cases, the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority announced the extension of the closure of the airports, decided on 17th March, until 23rd July, and it was decided that anyone entering the country should keep self-confined for fourteen days. On the 16th, the curfew, originally 24 hours a day, was reduced to the period 21:30-6:00. On the 19th, 2.310 new cases and 90 deaths were reported. By that date, the epidemic had caused 92.530 deaths in the country (Kurdistan-24). But due to the catastrophic economic situation, a relaxation was necessary... International flights resumed on the 23rd, with Lebanon and Turkey, for which passengers had to present negative tests before being allowed to board. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that its airports, Erbil and Suleimaniyah, would remain closed until 1st August. On the 27th, Iraq announced 2.500 new cases and more than 90 deaths. A positive note despite everything: at that date, according to official data, about 77.144 patients, 68.5% of them, had recovered...
Kurdistan has not been spared by the epidemic either. On 4th July, KRG announced 9 deaths and 204 new cases, the majority in the provinces of Suleimaniyah (173) and Halabja (93), those with the most relations with Iran, 25 in Erbil and only 3 in Dohuk. Earlier the same day, the governor of Erbil had indicated that the total curfew imposed on the city since the end of June would be reduced to the period 20:00-5:00, with a reduction in the hours of public services, a ban on gatherings and ceremonies and the restriction of restaurants to take-away food. He also urged Erbilians to go out only if necessary and masked. On the 6th, KRG announced 11 new deaths and 324 new cases. In Suleimaniyah, the Deputy Director of Health, Herish Salim, told Kurdistan-24 that more than 400 health workers had been infected, but that due to staff shortages they were returning to work immediately afterwards – including himself. On the 7th, the Ministry of Health confirmed 495 new cases, the highest daily number recorded since the outbreak, and eleven deaths. Erbil set up a 48-hour quarantine for anyone arriving in the city. 1.287 people were then isolated throughout the Region.
On the 8th, the figures somewhat dropped with 294 new infections and still 11 deaths (Kurdistan-24), but delays in payment of wages were adding to the difficulties by causing strikes among health workers. According to the doctors’ union in Suleimaniyah, there were 20.000 strikers on the 10th, and a military doctor in that town told Le Monde that the peshmergas had not received their wages for five months. KRG started paying the salaries of... February at the beginning of July, but only partially.
Until the end of the month, Kurdistan experienced the same curve as the rest of the country, with lower figures in relation to its population: on the 13th, 254 new cases and 14 deaths in 24 hours, on the 20th, 258 cases and 7 deaths... On the 14th, the Kurdish Institute in Washington calculated that there had been 1.500 new cases and 340 deaths in one week, Kirkuk being the worst hit area with 2.247 cases and 114 deaths, among them that of the the city’s police spokesman. On the 21st, while the figures remained apparently stable with 252 cases and 13 victims, the breakdown by province showed that Erbil was experiencing a relative increase, with 98 cases, just behind Suleimaniyah at 130. The trend was confirmed on the 28th when, out of 302 new cases, 139 came from Erbil, passing for the first time ahead of Suleimaniyah at 124 cases; however, the different timescale of the wave in Suleimaniyah was reflected in the numbers of people still under medical observation: 2.580 in Suleimaniyah against only 899 in Erbil (Kurdistan-24). These figures are worrying, because they suggest that a later wave is now threatening Erbil...
On the 31st, the Ministry of the Interior confirmed the reopening of the Region’s two airports the following day. The Suleimaniyah airport indicated that, although the KRG had not requested it, it would only allow boarding to passengers who could produce a negative test (Rûdaw).
In terms of banning ceremonies and closing borders, one incident is worth mentioning: on 10th July, nearly 2.000 dervishes of the Qadiriyya Sufi order illegally entered Iraqi Kurdistan through the Iran Başmax border post to attend the funeral of Sheikh Mohammed Kasnazani. The Iranian authorities opened fire on the dervishes, most of them without passports, and wounded five of them, but the others were able to force their way through and board buses to Suleimaniyah, where they attended the funeral (WKI).
Can we expect, at last, a real anti-ISIS coordination in the territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad? On the 2nd, a delegation from the KRG Peshmerga Ministry met in Baghdad with officials from the Iraqi Defence Ministry to discuss the creation of joint operations centres in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala. According to a ministry source, Baghdad accepted the principle and was expected to send a delegation to Erbil to finalise the agreement. On the 9th, Brigadier General Yahia Rasul, spokesman for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, said to Rûdaw that meetings with the Pechmergas were continuing “to fill the security gaps in the disputed areas, which can reach 13 km in some areas”. On the 11th, in the presence of the Iraqi Prime Minister who had come to supervise the operation, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish anti-terrorist units from Suleimaniyah province launched the fourth phase of the anti-ISIS “Heroes of Iraq” campaign in Diyala province, in cooperation with elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units), with Iraqi and coalition air support. The first phase of the operation, launched in mid-May, had targeted the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahaddine; the second phase, launched on 2nd June, targeted jihadists on the borders of Kirkuk and Salahaddin provinces, and the third phase Salahaddine, Diyala, Samarra and Kirkuk provinces (Rudaw). However, in concrete terms, the Peshmergas did not participate in the operation of the 11th.
On the 20th, a delegation from the Iraqi Ministry of Defence arrived in Erbil to continue discussions on joint operations in the disputed territories, in the presence of American military personnel. The federal government and the KRG, which had already agreed to deploy troops between Khurmatu and Kirfi, had mobilised troops in the region the previous week, although the Peshmergas denounced uncoordinated deployments of Iraqi forces near Kurdistan borders. In the last week of the month, a new anti-ISIS operation was launched in the areas between Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.
Another problem facing Kurdistan is the aggravation of Turkish air strikes and ground incursions since the launch of the anti-PKK operation “Claw-Eagle” on 15th June, particularly in the districts of Zakho, Akre and Amedi (Dohuk), and in Sindjar. The situation was already serious enough at the end of June for the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Robert Destro, to condemn the strikes on Sindjar on 30th June, saying: “How can people possibly flourish if they are under the threat of airstrikes?” But Turkey continued its incursions and by the beginning of July had almost doubled its military presence in Kurdistan. By mid-June, it already had 24 military bases there, and by early July it had penetrated an area 40 to 50 kilometres long and 15 kilometres deep and had set up 12 additional bases, in a more discreet replica of its “security zone” in Rojava... The Turkish military does not hesitate to use its drones to strike targets near civilian installations, at the risk of injuring or killing very young children, as shown in a Voice of America (VOA) report published on the 2nd, showing how shop owners were hit when a vehicle carrying PKK fighters had stopped there. A video published on 7th July by the France-24 programme “Les Observateurs” (Observers) shows how another Turkish strike, on 25th June, nearly killed very young children playing in a river near a picnic area (https://observers.france24.com/en/20200701-iraq-kurdish-family-turkish-airstrike-picnic-area-kuna-masi). Turkish diplomacy responded to Iraqi protests by telling VOA that if the Iraqi authorities “had acted decisively to eliminate the PKK from their territories, we would not need to carry out such operations”. But some experts in the United States believe that a hidden aim of the Turkish strikes may well be to derail the intra-Kurdish negotiations in Rojava that are taking place with US mediation.
After new Turkish air strikes on the 3rd caused at least five civilian casualties in Deraluk and Shiladze (Dohuk), the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to consider economic retaliatory measures against Ankara. Iraqi-Turkish trade has an annual surplus of sixteen billion dollars in favour of Turkey, whose hundreds of companies are present in Iraq. It also announced that it was going to call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to condemn the Turkish military intervention (Rûdaw).
This in no way influenced the behaviour of Turkey, which on the contrary intensified its operations along the border, with air strikes and artillery fire on Shiladze, Amêdî, Zakho and Bradost (WKI). On the 6th, the Turkish Presidency published a map showing 37 Turkish “military points” in Iraqi Kurdistan. A PKK commander, Rizgar Ersi, said Turkey was seeking to establish a 40-km “corridor of occupation” from Shingal (Sindjar) to Qandil as a continuous base for launching attacks on the Kurdish party. The border guards of the province of Dohouk, a force created in 2003 and made up mainly of Kurds, on 1st July installed five bases on “strategic” positions in an attempt to act as a buffer and thus reduce civilian casualties (Rûdaw).
Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd, warned on Twitter on the 8th: “The recent Turkish military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan in the Zakho region is a very serious geopolitical development. The intensity of the attack is alarming. And the calls by Turkish leaders to reactivate [Turkish] historical claims on Mosul Vilayet are even more worrying” (Ahval). New villages are constantly being abandoned by their terrified inhabitants, such as Avla’s (Zakho) on the 10th (Rûdaw), who added to the list of thousands of civilians displaced by the Turkish strikes.
On the 12th, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced that a fifth soldier had been killed in Iraqi Kurdistan, without specifying the location. But he was taking part in the ground operation “Claw-Tiger”, which is taking place in the Haftanin region. In cross-claims, while the ministry announced the “neutralisation” of three PKK fighters, the PKK said it had “punished” 16 Turkish soldiers in Haftanin within three days (Rûdaw).
At the end of the month, Turkey’s military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan continued with new air strikes and the deployment of additional troops in the Bradost district (Erbil). On the 26th, an air raid killed two civilians near Bamarni (Duhok). For its part, the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region examined a report submitted by the delegations it had sent on the 5th to the recently bombed border areas of Zakho, Amêdî, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah. The Turkish operations caused the death of 50 civilians without any affiliation to the PKK, the evacuation of 504 villages and tens of millions of dollars in material damage, including damage to farms and the death of livestock belonging to the local population (WKI). In a report published a little earlier, on the 23rd, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) had assessed that since August 2015, ground operations, artillery strikes or Turkish bombardments had killed or injured more than 180 civilians in the border areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, including 15 killed and 95 injured in the first half of 2020 (Kurdistan-24). However, the CPT’s estimate remains lower than the figure of 30 civilian casualties of the latest Turkish attacks on Rûdaw mentioned in early July by the head of the Batifa district (Zakho). In the United States, the frightening list of civilian victims of Turkish operations compiled by Columbia University (https://ahvalnews-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/ahvalnews.com/northern-iraq/turkey-must-face-reckoning-its-crimes-iraqi-kurdistan?amp) shows unambiguously that Ankara has been massively guilty of war crimes since January.
While it is already struggling to survive against the Turkey of Erdoğan and the Damascus regime, Rojava must also wage an existential struggle to escape the isolation it is threatened with, while it lacks everything and remains exposed to the risk of the pandemic as much as to the collateral effects of the American “Caesar” sanctions against Syria.
The draft resolution submitted mid-June to the UN Security Council by Germany and Belgium proposed the extension for one year of the authorisation of the passage of humanitarian aid to Idlib from two Turkish border crossings, which are therefore outside the control of Damascus. It also proposed the reopening for six months of the al-Yarubiah crossing point with Iraq, closed since January following pressure from Damascus and its Russian ally. The UN considers al-Yarubiah, controlled by the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), as a vital entry point for the medical supplies needed to fight the coronavirus. On the 7th, Russia put pressure on these two countries to withdraw the reopening of al-Yarubiah from their proposal, in exchange for maintaining the passage to Idlib for one year. After their refusal, the vote ended with a Russian and Chinese veto, even though the proposal had been approved by the other thirteen members of the Council.”
Using the argument of “respecting Syrian sovereignty”, Russia wants to impose the control of all humanitarian aid by the regime, even though several NGOs have already denounced its political use of access to food and medical supplies during the almost ten years of civil war. The November 2019 agreement with Turkey has put Russia in a position of strength by allowing it for the first time in years to gain a foothold east of the Euphrates. Moscow now wants to take advantage of it to force AANES, which administers the Rojava, to submit to Damascus, hence this real blackmail on humanitarian aid, while Turkey for its part continues a similar blackmail with water. Ilham Ahmed, president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (CDS) said on the 4th that Ankara was “intentionally” withholding water to cause “a real drought in Syria” (Rûdaw). Nearly three million people, mostly women and children, as well as many displaced people, are thus being held hostage...
The Russian and Chinese vetoes were denounced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a consortium of international NGOs, but to no avail. The next day, Russia submitted its own resolution, which planned to allow only one Turkish crossing point to Idlib, Bab al-Hawa, for six months. As it got only four votes in favour, Belgium and Germany submitted a second proposal abandoning any mention of al-Yarubiah and adding to Bab al-Hawa the reopening of the second Turkish crossing point to the Aleppo region, Bab al-Salam. At the end of the day, the discussions led to maintaining only a single access for the whole of Syria, Bab al-Hawa, exactly what Moscow had proposed, for one year. Russian intransigence had paid off.
At the same time, Russia declared its support for the talks between AANES and the regime, and repeated its support for the integration of the Syrian Democratic Forces into the Syrian army as “Division 5”. AANES, for its part, announced that it would refuse any participation in the elections to the Syrian parliament (“People’s Assembly”), which were held on the 19th, and refused any polling station on its territory (WKI).
Regarding the pandemic, the alarm bell has begun to ring, since after the first two cases of COVID announced in April, the AANES announced four new cases on the 23rd, three women and one man, three in Qamishli and one in Hassaké, bringing the total number of positive cases to six. As the only tests available are the 2.000 or so given by Iraqi Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani, the authorities have to select wisely who to test, making it difficult to manage the epidemic. On the same day, the official number of cases in the Damascus-controlled areas of Syria was announced at 584, which many observers think is a very underestimated figure. On the 24th, AANES ordered the closure of borders except for humanitarian transport, and imposed a fourteen-day isolation order on all arriving people: AANES believes that the new cases could have come from areas controlled by the regime, as one of the newly infected women arrived from Damascus. Many were then stranded at the border. Collective prayers in mosques were also banned, and restaurants were restricted to serving take-away food. The Kurdish Red Crescent reported that 88 people were quarantined. On the 30th, while the number of cases in the rest of Syria rose to 738, the authorities in Rojava announced 17 new cases, 11 in Jezira, three in Raqqa and three in Deir Ezzor, for a total of 25... (Rûdaw)
Concerning ISIS, phase 2 of Operation “Deterrence of Terrorism”, launched on the 17th in response to the request of Deir Ezzor tribal leaders who were concerned about the jihadist resurgence in their region, ended on the 22nd. Strongly supported by the population of the areas concerned, it led to the capture of 31 militants, including a commander, and the confiscation of important military equipment (Difesa e sicurezza). Besides, Turkish intelligence agents infiltrated the al-Hol camp to free a Moldovan woman and her four children, an escape confirmed on the 17th by the local authorities. The SDF said they did not understand the need for such an operation, as they keep asking the countries of origin of these detainees to repatriate them, without much success... (VOA) This action also raises the question of whether fighters could be exfiltrated in the same way, and the AANES issued a statement accusing Turkey of supporting ISIS.
Besides, daily life in Rojava is still very much marred by insecurity, whether as a result of war, attacks or accidents. On the 15th, an explosion in an Asayish (Security) or SDF ammunition depot in Hassakah is said to have injured 8 people (Rûdaw). In Sarê Kaniyê / Ras al-Aïn, the first city taken by the Turks in their last October invasion, bomb attacks followed one another: on the 23rd and 25th, car bombs exploded in the city, killing and injuring people. On the 26th, at least eight people, including six civilians, died and 19 were injured in a motorbike bomb explosion in a vegetable market. On the 28th, another motorbike bomb killed two civilians and a combatant, and on the 30th, another car bomb again killed six people, mostly combatants, at a checkpoint in the village of Tal Halaf, near Sarê Kaniyê. Fifteen people were injured. In Afrin, an improvised explosive device killed a Kurdish child on the 26th and injured four others (WKI). These different attacks have not been claimed. While Ankara generally blames the “terrorist organisation PKK/YPG” for the attacks in the Syrian regions it controls, AANES blames it on the internal struggles between Syrian opponents, including those used by Turkey as proxies.
In Manbij, still held by a Military Council affiliated to the SDF, but with a Russian-Syrian military presence, six civilians living in surrounding villages were killed on the 27th by artillery fire from Syrian auxiliaries of the Turkish army, launched from a Turkish base in Sheikh Nasser, north-west of the city. Women and children were among the dead, and six other children were wounded (Kurdistan-24). Pro-Turkish mercenaries continue their attacks on villages on the borders of their zone of control as well as their abuses within it. Sometimes civilians are victims of their internal clashes, as in Afrin, where on the 22nd, an elderly woman was killed in the infighting between two different jihadist groups (WKI).
On 4th July, eighteen human rights organisations sounded the alarm about Turkey’s war crimes in Afrin in an open letter to European officials, Marija Pejéinovié Burié, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and Robert Ragnar Spano, President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). They accuse Ankara and its Syrian representatives of having “since the beginning of Turkish military operations” committed in the area “war crimes, crimes against humanity, as well as crimes of ethnic cleansing and genocide” (Rûdaw).
Since the publication of this text, unfortunately, new violations have taken place. On the 7th, an 18-year-old Kurdish boy, Mihemed Mistefa Yusif, was found hanging from a tree in front of his home in Afrin. According to local testimonies, while his family had already been evicted from its previous house by the jihadists, he had refused to go to Libya to fight. Many fighters sent to Libya are recruited by a shady private security company, “Sadat”, with close ties to the Turkish president. At the end of the month, a 50-year-old Kurdish woman from Afrin, who had been kidnapped and tortured for 26 days by pro-Turkish auxiliaries before being released for ransom, gave a frightening testimony. Horrified to discover her 27-year-old daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter in the same prison, she was subjected to electric shocks and drowning simulations, insulted, beaten... She lost 19 kg during this period. She also confirmed that the jihadists practiced rape of their prisoners. She waited to give her testimony until she and her family were safe in the Shehba region, still administered by the AANES (Kurdistan for women).
Besides, Turkey continues its rampant colonisation of the Syrian zones it controls: building new military bases, Ankara has generalised the use of its currency there since June, an evolution facilitated by the fact that it pays its local mercenaries in Turkish liras. The post offices (Posta Telegraf Telefon, PTT) now open in these regions serve as exchange offices, and have been supplied in small denominations for this purpose. Chambers of commerce closely linked to their Turkish counterparts have also been established. In Afrin, many Kurdish landowners have been stripped of their land, and olive production, the wealth of this mountainous region, is exported to Europe via Turkey. The part of the olive money that does not stay in Turkey is often the cause of the confrontations between the jihadist factions already mentioned (Le Monde).
The silence of the international community about Turkish spoliations, abuses and war crimes in the Rojava is becoming increasingly unjustifiable and deafening.
Death of the “Amed Nightingale”
On the morning of 5 July, the dengbêj Seyidxanê Boyaxcî, nicknamed the “Amed Nightingale”, died at the age of 87 in his flat in Amed (Diyarbakir). He was suffering from paralysis caused by an infection that had spread throughout his body. Raised by his uncle after the death of both his parents, he had not been able to go to school long. First a shepherd and then a shoe-shine boy, he confided that his songs had enabled him to continue living after the early death of his seven children.
He was for a long time very present at the “House of Dengbej” in the old city of Diyarbakir, until it was evacuated by the Turkish authorities in 2016, when they dismissed the co-mayors and replaced them with an trustee, before reopening in 2017.
Seyidxanê Boyaxcî was buried in the Yeniköy cemetery in the Bağlar district of Diyarbakir.
Book Fair in Rojava
Scheduled to last six days from July 20th, the Qamishli Book Fair had to close its doors earlier than planned because of the COVID epidemic, but it is already extraordinary and praiseworthy that such an event could have taken place in such a difficult context. Around 40 publishers and several writers brought about 120.000 books, mostly in Kurdish and Arabic, to the site. “Various books on religion, ethnicity and history as well as dictionaries were brought from many places”, said Khabat Ibrahim, who attended the event. About 700 books were presented by Kurdish publishers based in Turkey, transported to Rojava via the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. However, no publisher from this Region participated in the event. Unfortunately, book prices remain very high given the local currency exchange rate and the standard of living of the inhabitants... (Rûdaw)
Political asylum for exiled Iranian Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani
It was learned on 24th July that Iranian Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, known for writing a book about his experience of six years internment in a camp in Papua New Guinea, had finally been granted political asylum in New Zealand.
Like many asylum seekers turned away by Australia, he had been interned in a refugee camp far from Australia, in Manus, Papua New Guinea, which was a lawless zone and a daily hell. He managed to make his situation known by texting a testimony in Kurdish, which was later translated into English and published as a book under the title No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which won him the Victoria Prize for Literature, Australia’s richest literary award.
Having been in New Zealand since November, where he arrived thanks to an invitation to testify at a literary festival, he learned that his asylum application had been accepted on his 37th birthday. Now a researcher at the University of Canterbury, based in Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city, Boochani said in a statement that he will continue to fight for refugees “as long as the Australian government continues to illegally detain people in Port Moresby, Nauru and Australia” (AFP).