Mar 21 2018

Newroz celebrations take place under tightened security in Diyarbakır

Kurds in Turkey gathered on Wednesday to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish spring festival, during a period of heightened tensions between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurdish political movement.

As celebrations progressed in Diyarbakır, the crowds reportedly forced their way past police barricades and on to the stage, prompting the riot squad to ready for intervention. A large number have reportedly been detained, including journalists, after a minor scuffle.

The opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which became the first pro-Kurdish political party able to pass the 10 percent electoral threshold and gain parliamentary representation in 2015, has suffered heavily under the ongoing state of emergency, in place since after the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

However, Kurdish political groups and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had already been at odds after the breakdown in 2015 of the peace process between the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resumed its decades-old insurgency that year, sparking fighting in Turkey’s southeastern region.

The clampdown has seen the number of HDP deputies ejected from parliament rise to double figures, with key figures including former party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş imprisoned. Dozens of local municipalities controlled by the HDP-affiliated Democratic Regions Party (DBP) have also been taken under “trusteeship” by the government, which switched the elected administrators with its own choice of replacements.

Thus the celebrations in Diyarbakır, known as the capital city of Turkish Kurdistan, went ahead this year under heightened security and with a markedly politicised atmosphere, guarded by thousands of police and observed by a police helicopter flying overhead.

Many thousands joined celebrations in the city, known in Kurdish as Amed, including HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan heading of a contingent from her party, and international representatives from Europe and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The participants entered through five checkpoints and three separate search points, where security had been instructed to confiscate items including pens and lighters. Drums, usually an indispensable part of Newroz, were also prohibited from the celebration grounds.

The music system was also placed under the control of the police, who choice pieces from a prepared list to prevent Kurdish revolutionary songs from being played.

Messages read at the celebrations included one sent by imprisoned Kurdish politicians, which hailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is imprisoned in the maximum security Imralı Prison.

However, Syrian Kurdish singer Xero Abbas’s set had the crowds in high spirits and dancing the Kurdish Halay.

Turkey’s military campaign against the mainly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the northwest Syrian region of Afrin has also cast a shadow over the celebrations, with the HDP and many Kurds the represents fiercely opposing the campaign. The YPG are said to have links to Turkey’s Kurdish movement through the PKK, and many Turkish Kurds have family connections in the areas affected by the military operation.

The situation across the border was addressed by speakers on stage, including politician Bedran Öztürk, whose speech preceded the lighting of the tradition Newroz fire. “We are are struggling against a great many states and international forces,” he said. “As the people of Afrin we have not and will not surrender. We resisted until the end to protect our land.”

As the six tonnes of wood and 250 litres of petrol caught fire, chants form the crowd of “long live Apo (Abdullah Öcalan)” and “long live Afrin” prompted the police to make an announcement warning revellers to “only chant specified slogans.”

A minor scuffle in front of the stage resulted in two journalists being handcuffed and detained, alongside a large number of youths.

The crowds later swelled past the police barricades and took the stage, leading police and riot squad officers to prepare for an intervention. At the time of writing, journalists have also reportedly been prevented from entering the celebration area.