The 'democratic opening' and the illusion of advanced democracy in Turkey

Kurdish lawyer, author and human rights activist Muharrem Erbey was imprisoned by Turkish authorities at the end of 2009 for fighting against human rights violations against his people. He wrote this letter from prison.
Muharrem Erbey
23 August 2011

Voltaire said, “Those who have lost their freedom lost it because they didn’t defend it.”  The American Declaration of Independence in 1776, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, and the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights all emphasize resistance to repression as a right and personal duty.  Rights and freedoms can be restricted in any society; the issue is to what extent and does it  tip the scales of justice.  Human rights defenders and all people of conscience ahve a duty to respond when repression in the defence of power intensifies and upsets these scales - both in authentic democratic societies and those where the exercise of rights is a façade maintained through an illusion. We human rights defenders have adopted as a principle the protection of human honour without regard to race, language, ethnic identity, religion, class, or sex. 

Founded in 1986, the Human Rights Association of Turkey (IHD) has struggled to help people’s search for freedom to access justice.  Twenty-three of our members have been extra-judicially executed because of their human rights work, hundreds of members and managers have been imprisoned for prolonged periods, and the organization has been the subject of thousands of lawsuits.

IHD documents the rampant violations committed in our region with data, reports and observations, and supports victims both in the legal process and the wider struggle for justice.  We share our data with the local, national and international community.  We criticize.  To those who claim that human rights abuses have ended, we say no, they’re continuing.  We have been and are being targeted for this reason.

The president of the IHD branch in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the Kurdish region of Turkey, was last arrested in 1995, during one of the darkest periods of the conflict here.  No other branch president has been arrested in the last 15 years, although they’ve been subjected to about 300 investigations and lawsuits.  I was abruptly arrested in December 2009 as part of the single investigation currently pending against me.  I’m not facing any other lawsuits or investigations at present.

Human rights have become chewing gum for everybody, while we are being silenced.

When deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç and interior minister Beşir Atalay came to Diyarbakır to meet with us, we told them that we heartily supported the so-called ‘democratic opening’ initiated by the government at the end of 2008.  We emphasized that we wanted to help to add substance to the initiative, and that concrete steps were urgently needed to stop violence and to put an end to deaths.  Regarding the Kurdish issue, we pointed out that the solution required legalizing the use of the Kurdish language in the public realm; transferring authority to local administrations; the creation of a civilian, egalitarian and pluralist constitution; and permission for the entry of PKK members into civilian politics through an unconditional amnesty. Our suggestions caused discomfort.

The Kurdish issue, which is Turkey’s oldest and most life-claiming, can be resolved through the participation and joint effort of a wide range of institutions, organizations, and other actors.  Most human rights violations in Turkey are related to the Kurdish issue in one way or another.  There have been 29 successive major Kurdish rebellions in the last 205 years, the first one occurring in Mosul in 1806.  The 40 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are deprived of basic rights and freedoms, perceived as second-class citizens, exposed to torture and maltreatment, prevented from freely exercising their language and culture, without status, and prevented from any real participation in the administration.

It’s significant that, although history has known the Kurds for thousands of years, neither the dominant powers in Kurdish lands nor international forces recognize the Kurds, choosing instead to ignore the posture adopted against them.

I’ve been in prison since 24 December 2009, for approximately 18 months, due to claims that I ‘belittled’ the state in speeches about human rights and the Kurdish issue that I delivered at the UN building in Geneva; as well as to the English, Belgian, and Swedish parliaments. I also advised victims in their applications to the European Court of Human Rights; prepared projects on women’s and children’s human rights; participated in work on the preparation of a civilian, pluralist constitution; frequently participated in press statements delivered by various NGOs. According to the state all my actions boosted the PKK's ‘morale’. I also wrote to public prosecutors and the Turkish parliament’s human rights commission on behalf of victims (indeed, the government prosecutor later characterized these writings as ones that furthered the goals of PKK); and the state also said that I was a member of the Turkey Assembly of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK/TM), an organization said to be an extension of the PKK.

When I went before the public prosecutor and judge responsible for my case, I admitted to all of these activities (with the exception of being a KCK member). I also stated that I stand by my actions and have no regrets, and that I’ll do them all again when I’m out of prison.

In May 2010, an indictment 7,500-pages-long was released.  The file dealing with 152 suspects, 104 of whom are being held in prison pending the result of the trial, amounts to 132,000 pages when supplementary ‘evidence’ is included. Among those facing prosecution are 15 elected mayors, 2 chairmen of general provincial councils, and scores of politicians.  We’ve been in prison for 18, 20, 24 months each.  The evidence against me includes testimony from a ‘secret witness’, and false and illusionary statements.  In our first trial, we declared that we’d be giving our statements in our mother language, Kurdish, as well as Turkish.  The chief judge turned off our microphones, characterizing Kurdish as an “unknown language”, and the prosecution has stalled.

Since the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, there’s been an effort to homogenize all ethnic identities through such methods as repression, forced migration, assimilation, arrests and extrajudicial killings carried out by unknown perpetrators.

The Turkish system has always resisted change by adopting a conservative stance against different identities and demands for freedom.  In 2002, there were 52,000 convicts and suspects in Turkish prisons; as of April 2011, there are 123,000 inmates, most of them convicted.

Does the imprisonment of opposition politicians, critical journalists, and human rights defenders signify that Turkey’s regime has become totalitarian?  All developments are implemented in the name of advanced democracy.  The acceptance of difference is the essence of genuine equality.  Attempts to suppress difference are an indication of inequality.

A little more tolerance, cooperation and empathy is all I ask for.  Let’s not forget that everyone has the right to comment on his or her own society’s development. Moreover, it is a moral duty.

People must know how to embrace suffering and pain for freedom, to take nourishment from these difficulties.  Notwithstanding those whose hearts have hardened, who feed on their own rage, who place unbearable emotional burdens on us, we stubbornly find nourishment and power in freedom. Equality, freedom and justice deserve everything we can give. 


Translated from the Turkish by Jake Hess.


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