Sit-in protests become new political battleground in Turkey

Muhammed Mustafa was an “innocent boy, very clean and very picky,” his mother said, and he was just 17-years-old when he disappeared from his family’s home in Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

Mustafa’s mother wants her son back home. This is the one thing she and the dozens of women now known as the Diyarbakır Mothers have demanded over weeks of sit-in protests outside the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)’s offices in the city.

The Diyarbakır Mothers say their children have been abducted to join the fight for Kurdish self-rule after being groomed by militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and want the HDP to contact the outlawed group to have their sons returned home. 

HDP officials have denied their party was involved in the disappearances. But the mothers have continued their vigil outside the party’s office, capturing the agenda in Turkey and laying the groundwork for similar protests, gaining government endorsement, while rival sit-ins are broken up by police.

The presence of the protesting mothers in a city that the HDP convincingly won in this year’s local elections has been a boon for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which for years has painted the Kurdish party as an extension of the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union all list as a terrorist organisation.  

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu visited the mothers last week to pledge his support for their cause. Less than a month before his visit, the minister had removed the city’s elected HDP mayor Selçuk Mızraklı, accusing him of links to the PKK. The HDP mayors of Van and Mardin were also dismissed on the same day. 

HDP members of parliament have been subject to prosecution since the breakdown of a peace process in 2015 for, among other things, attending the funerals of young men who fought for the PKK. Now the party is facing a grassroots protest movement of mothers who held it responsible for their missing children.

The protests have been kept on the agenda with daily news stories and visits from celebrities. But the opposition has hit back with its own protests, making it clear that the government’s support for distressed mothers has been selective.

There was no tolerance for example last year for the Saturday Mothers, non-violent activists who have staged regular sit-ins since the 1980s demanding to know what happened to family members who they say disappeared while in police custody. More than 20 people were detained during one of the group’s sit-ins in central Istanbul in August last year. 

Soylu said the Saturday Mothers had links to terrorist organisations and accused them of “exploitation and deceit”. 

“It is obvious what they are trying to do,” he said. “They are using the concept of motherhood to create the impression of victimhood and working to polarise society.”

Turkish police have taken a similar zero-tolerance approach to mothers who mobilised this summer to protest against the treatment of their children who were studying at military cadet schools at the time of a failed coup attempt against the AKP government in July, 2016.

Military cadets at academies which were caught up in the coup attempt have faced expulsion and, in some cases, long prison sentences, though their families say they were not involved in the coup.

A group of the cadets’ mothers tried to organise a sit-in in front of the AKP’s provincial headquarter in Istanbul on Monday. The police intervened and moved the mothers away from the building after checking their identity cards. 

“We only want our children’s right to education, nothing else. This country is ours, this flag is ours, we have nowhere else to go. When the mother in Diyarbakır receives so much support, we were literally kicked out when we were in front of the AKP today. I still cannot swallow it, we did not go there for a protest, we went there to make our voices heard,” one of the mothers told left-wing newspaper Evrensel. 

“Mothers organise sit-ins in Diyarbakır, dismissed workers sit in front of the CHP, but we cannot sit in front of the AKP. Mothers there are allowed, but not us,” said Fatma Ok, whose son received a life sentence. 

Meanwhile, another group of mothers tried to open a banner reading “mothers want peace” in front of the AKP provincial headquarters in Diyarbakır on Tuesday. The mothers’ demonstration lasted only 30 minutes before police officers intervened and detained three of them. 

The protests in front of AKP building spread to the central Anatolian province of Kayseri on Wednesday. A group of relatives of the jailed military school students went to the AKP provincials headquarter and demanded to meet the party’s officials, but they too were declined. 

Police on Wednesday detained four people who wanted to stage a sit-in protest in front of the AKP headquarters in Ankara to protest the Turkish government’s purge against the opposition since the 2016 failed coup.

Cemal Yıldırım, a Turkish man who was sacked from his public sector job by an emergency decree after the coup attempt, first tried to stage a sit-in in front of AKP headquarters on Monday. The police detained him one minute after he started his protests. 

“In a period when the minister of interior goes to the HDP provincial headquarters in Diyarbakır, I wanted to expose something. I have been protesting on the streets for three years. The AKP government, which violated our rights, now is trying to stage a play. And I wanted to overturn their play,” Yıldırım said at the start of his protest on Monday.

Since then, the police have intervened rapidly every time Yıldırım and others accompanying him attempted to start a sit-in. On Wednesday, Emine Uyanık and Melek Çetinkaya, mothers of two military school students who were handed life sentences for joining the coup attempt, and Sanem Deniz Kural, the chairwoman of a communist party who was also dismissed from her job by an emergency decree, joined Yıldırım.