Turkey ‘won’t forget treason’, says minister on mass arrests

(Updates with comments from European politicians)

The first reaction from the Turkish government to the mass arrests on Friday came from Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank, who said the counterterrorism operation against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was started against “those who pillaged cities using the excuse of the Kobani events.”

“Some try to rile up a storm asking why the proceedings came six years after the fact,” daily Cumhuriyet reported Varank as saying. “We will never forget this treason, the October 6-8 events.”

The chief public prosecutor in capital Ankara issued a statement announcing the start of procedures to lift immunities for seven current HDP deputies who were members of the party’s central executive board at the time of events, Tele1 reported. The deputies that are known to be included in the list are Saruhan Oluç, Meral Danış Beştaş, Garo Paylan, Huda Kaya, Sezai Temelli and Serpil Kemalbay.

Massive street protests had broken out in several Kurdish-majority provinces on Oct. 6, 2014, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani was “about to fall” to the ISIS siege at the time. At least 37 people died in three days of protests that followed.

Former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş is facing terrorism charges for inciting the protests, and remains in prison, as does his co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ.

In 2018, Demirtaş responded to allegations of incitement, saying his call for peaceful protest against ISIS attacks had been misconstrued, and that the majority of deaths attributed to his party were members of HDP killed by paramilitary or state actors. According to the Kurdish politician, a total of 43 people lost their lives during the three days of unrest: Two members of security forces, six members of HÜDAPAR, a fundamentalist party allegedly associated with the Turkish Hezbollah, two Syrian refugees, and 33 HDP members.

The HDP has proposed three parliamentary inquiries on the events to date, in the immediate aftermath in 2014, and again in 2017 and 2019. All of them have been voted down by the AKP and its partner MHP, HDP deputy Garo Paylan said.

“If they think we will forget who is responsible for burning our cities, pillaging our public buildings, and costing the lives of many civilians including Yasin Börü, they are sorely mistaken,” Varank said, referring to the 16-year-old boy who was killed in southeastern Diyarbakır province on Oct. 7.

“We will call out murderers, traitors, thugs. We will hold each one of them to account for our 793 martyrs,” said İzzet Ulvi Yönter, deputy chairman for junior government partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). “We will make them pay through the nose.”

Main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu told HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar in a phone call that the operation was politically motivated, and tied to the government being in a quagmire, HDP announced. “This attack is in truth against all opposition as a whole over the HDP,” Sancar said.

Former CHP deputy İlhan Cihaner called on Kılıçdaroğlu and other opposition leaders, centre-right Good Party’s (İYİP) Meral Akşener, conservative Felicity Party’s (SP) Temel Karamollaoğlu and Turkey Worker’s Party’s (TİP) Erkan Baş, saying it was “vital to visit the HDP against these coup practices and condemn the unlawful arrests in order to uphold our politics, peace and unity.”

“Attempts to intimidate HDP politicians with threats of prison are pointless,” CHP deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu said in a televised interview. “Altan Tan lost his father to torture in prison, while Sırrı Süreyya Önder, Ayla Akat Ata and many others have spent time in prison.”

“It would be ridiculous to think that Ayhan Bilgen, Altan Tan, Süreyya Önder and others were detained solely on law-related grounds,” Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) deputy Mustafa Yeneroğlu said in a tweet.

“Terrorism is a red line for all of us. But terrorising our political rivals and abusing the judiciary to do so will not take us to a more democratic Turkey,” Future Party (GP) spokesman Selim Temurci said. “We ask this: Would these arrests happen today if HDP had joined the (Turkish government’s) Millet (Nation) alliance?”

The operation “can’t be considered to be only against the HDP, it is also against the right to engage in politics,” Labour Party (EMEP) Chairwoman Selma Gürkan said.

“We remember Erdoğan’s comments on Kobani after six years, when we were on the brink of having murderous ISIS as a neighbour across the border. It is almost like the ‘fall’ that never came then is being accounted for now,” Gürkan said.

The Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament issued a statement later in the day to condemn the crackdown on HDP.

“The detention of these people, including former members of parliament, is another step backwards pushing Turkey even further away from the EU,” former Turkey rapporteur and Dutch MEP Kati Piri said, calling for the detainees’ immediate release.

“Turkish authorities seem determined to establish some kind of overall retroactive state of emergency in order to further suppress opposition and any critical voices,” current European Parliament Rapporteur on Turkey Nacho Sánchez Amor said.

Sánchez Amor pointed to Ayhan Bilgen, the mayor of eastern Kars province who was one of the few remaining HDP mayors who had not been replaced by a government appointee. “If he was to be replaced by a trustee, it would be the umpteenth attack against the democratic will of the people as expressed in the last local elections,” he said.

In 2017, during his term in parliament, Ayhan Bilgen had been arrested over charges of inciting the events, and was acquitted after spending seven months in pre-trial detention. The Constitutional Court ruled for 20,000 liras ($5,900 at the time, currently $2,600) of non-material compensation for Bilgen upon his appeal on the grounds that his arrest violated his right to hold public office.

Germany's left-wing Die Linke strongly condemned the arrests, “as they suspend all principles of the rule of law.” Calling Erdoğan a despot and his government authoritarian, Die Linke said Germany “must stop supporting a regime in Turkey that continues to trample on democratic freedoms.”