The Turkish government passed a bill last week to release some 90,000 inmates, including mob bosses, racketeers, and looters, to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in its crowded prisons. Yet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be keeping political prisoners behind bars, including former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and scores of other HDP lawmakers, mayors, and party officials.
Erdogan has a track record of exploiting crises to expand his power, and is refusing to let the pandemic disrupt his campaign to deprive Turkey’s 15 million Kurds of their constitutional rights.
Erdogan’s assault on Kurdish rights continues even as Turkey has overtaken China, reporting more than 110,000 cases as of April 27, the seventh highest number of infections in the world. So far, Erdogan seems more concerned about protecting his political interests than containing the pandemic. Following suit with his fellow authoritarians, Erdogan has kept a tight lid on coronavirus news, arresting over 400 individuals for their social media posts for “attempting to stir unrest,” interrogating reporters for “inciting the public to panic,” and even filing a criminal complaint against the anchor of Fox TV’s Turkish subsidiary for “spreading lies and manipulating the public on social media.”
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After almost 18 years in power, Erdogan has reasons to fear the HDP, which briefly robbed him of his parliamentary majority in 2015, and then helped strip Erdogan’s party of the Istanbul mayoralty – a cash cow for Erdogan’s cronies – by joining forces with other opposition parties in 2019.
Two weeks after Ankara confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 12, the Erdogan government — in keeping with an alarming trend that has taken hold since 2015 — detained five elected HDP mayors, replacing them and three others with his hand-picked “trustees.” One of the first steps that Erdogan’s trustee for the Kurdish-majority city of Batman took after assuming office was to remove all Kurdish-language content from the municipality’s website.
Since fighting the coronavirus pandemic requires close coordination between central and local authorities, in addition to strong bonds of solidarity and trust between municipal administrators and the people they serve, such ethnocentric policies are an invitation to disaster. Hisyar Ozsoy, an HDP spokesperson, warned about the potential ramifications of Erdogan’s removal of 46 of Turkey’s 65 elected pro-Kurdish mayors since the 2019 municipal elections. Ozsoy highlighted how the trustees “don’t have the necessary communication and dialogue with local people whose political will they have just destroyed.” He also added that the Turkish government’s policies put the “Kurdish people in a very difficult situation in the fight against the coronavirus.”
It is time for the Turkish president to realize that the coronavirus infects and kills indiscriminately across ethnic and religious lines
While coronavirus statistics from Turkey’s ministry of health appear to show that the Kurdish-majority provinces in the country’s southeast do not have very many cases so far, the numbers are hardly convincing. Many of these provinces share a border with hard-hit Iran, and the Iranian province of Kurdistan on the Turkish border reportedly has the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in the entire country.
Given Erdogan government’s ongoing crackdown on independent media in general, and pro-Kurdish outlets in specific, there is little hope for accurate coverage of the pandemic’s spread among Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.
When award-winning Kurdish activist and journalist Nurcan Baysal wrote about the “coronavirus risk in prisons”, Turkish prosecutors detained and interrogated her on March 30. The next day, Turkish authorities also launched an investigation against Rusen Takva, a Kurdish journalist working in the province of Van on the Iranian border, for “creating fear and panic among the public” with his coronavirus coverage.
The Turkish government’s ongoing crackdown has made it painfully clear that Turkey’s Kurds –with the exception of those who back Erdogan’s Islamist project— can expect no respite during this public health crisis. While many violent criminals have walked free, Kurdish political prisoners, just like their Turkish brethren, will be at the mercy of the coronavirus in prisons.
It is time for the Turkish president to realize that the coronavirus infects and kills indiscriminately across ethnic and religious lines. Turkey can only wage an effective campaign against the pandemic by ending Erdogan’s discriminatory policies and polarizing rhetoric, and by mobilizing the entire country around a common goal, Turks and Kurds alike. The clock is ticking, and Turkey’s strongman neither has the luxury of sweeping Kurdish grievances under the carpet nor of rejecting the helping hand they have been offering to restore not only public health but also the health of Turkish democracy.