by Josh Lalonde
On September 25, Turkish prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 82 people, most of them members of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP). One of those arrested, Cihan Erdal, is a PhD student in sociology at Carleton University and a Canadian permanent resident. Erdal’s partner Ömer Ongun, also a permanent resident, has not had contact with Erdal since receiving a phone call from him as he was about to be arrested.
Ongun told the CBC that in their last conversation, Erdal phoned and said “I love you. They are at my door. They’re going to take me away.”
Although the specific charges against Erdal have not been made public, Turkish prosecutors allege that the people arrested were involved in inciting protests in 2014, during which dozens of people were killed. While early reports suggested Erdal may have been one of the signatories to a letter supporting those protests, a website campaigning for his freedom now denies that the letter ever existed.
A Turkish court ordered the detention of Erdal and 16 other former and current HDP officials and politicians on October 2, apparently on the basis of Twitter posts “calling on people to join the October 2014 demonstrations,” according to Human Rights Watch. According to the Free Cihan Erdal website, Erdal was not even present at the HDP meeting at which the posts were approved.
If convicted of “attempting to destroy the unity of the state,” one of many charges levelled by prosecutors at the HDP defendants, Erdal could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Why has the simple act of allegedly signing a letter or posting on social media led to Erdal’s arrest? The reasons have to do with the long and bloody history of the so-called “Kurdish question” in Turkey, that of the Syrian war, and the increasingly repressive political climate in Turkey since 2016.
The “Kurdish question”
The modern Republic of Turkey was formed after the First World War as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. During the Ottoman era, the Anatolian peninsula (the location of most of modern-day Turkey) was inhabited by ethnic Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Arabs, and others. A number of ethnoreligious communities were granted a degree of autonomy under the rule of the Ottoman sultan.
The Turkish republic, on the other hand, was founded on the principle of Turkish nationalism and insisted that all its inhabitants identify as Turks. The rise of Turkish nationalism in the last years of the Ottoman Empire culminated in a genocide of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians beginning in 1915. This was followed by a 1923 population exchange between Greece and the new Republic of Turkey, which left the Kurds as the largest remaining minority group in Turkey.
Turkish nationalists argued that Kurds were merely “mountain Turks” who had forgotten their true Turkish identity, to which they had to be returned – by force if necessary. The Kurdish language – and even letters used in written Kurdish but not Turkish – were banned from public life. Kurdish place names were changed to Turkish ones. A series of Kurdish revolts against discrimination by the Turkish state occurred over the course of the 20th century.
The recent history of Kurdish resistance to the Turkish state begins with the founding of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978. The PKK was founded as a Marxist national liberation organization dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in the southeast of what is currently Turkey. The party began an armed insurgency in 1984, which continued with brief ceasefires until 1999. During this campaign, up to 40,000 people were killed, most of them Kurdish civilians killed by Turkish armed forces. The PKK has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey and its NATO allies, including Canada, but not by the UN and many other countries.
The 1999 capture and imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan led not only to a ceasefire but a significant shift in the PKK’s ideology, from Marxism-Leninism to Öcalan’s newly-articulated “democratic confederalism.” Partly inspired by Öcalan’s prison readings of Nietzsche, Foucault, eco-feminists like Maria Mies — and in particular green anarchist Murray Bookchin — democratic confederalism calls for local autonomy and direct democracy with ecology and feminism as pillars, rather than seeking to create a new nation-state. It is ‘democracy without a state,’ as Öcalan has more plainly put it.
The Syrian war and the 2014 protests
During the insurgency, Öcalan was based in Syria, with at least the tacit support of the Syrian government under then-president Hafez al-Assad. Many Syrian Kurds joined the PKK, and it developed covert organizations within Syria, which later formed the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in 2003.
When the Syrian war broke out in 2011 in the wake of Arab Spring protests, the PYD formed an armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG took control in the mostly Kurdish north of the country (AKA Rojava) as the central Syrian government, under attack by a variety of opposition forces, withdrew to consolidate its control in western Syria. In January 2014, three cantons under the control of a PYD -led coalition, the Movement for a Democratic Society, declared autonomy.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) set up an offshoot in Syria in 2011, called Jabhat al-Nusra. By 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra had become one of the most powerful groups fighting against the Syrian government. In 2013 ISI announced the merger of the two groups and the formation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The newly-formed ISIS was quickly able to capture large swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq. By September 2014, the group had surrounded the Kurdish town of Kobanê on the Turkey-Syria border, which formed the centre of one of the autonomous cantons.
The Turkish government, which viewed the PYD and the autonomous administration it led as extensions of the PKK, took no action to prevent Kobanê from falling to ISIS. And while ISIS fighters were able to cross the border into Turkey to receive medical attention before returning to the battle, Turkish police and border guards prevented volunteers from Turkey from entering Syria to help defend the town.
There were also multiple allegations by journalists and opposition politicians that the Turkish intelligence service MİT was providing training, logistical support, and weapons to ISIS. Later, in 2015, three MİT trucks carrying weapons into Syria, allegedly for ISIS or other extremist groups, were stopped by the Turkish gendarmerie. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the defenders of Kobanê as “terrorists,” ironically equating them with ISIS, and announced that the town was “about to fall.”
The widespread perception that the Turkish state was supporting the ISIS campaign against Kobanê sparked mass protests and riots of Kurds across Turkey in October 2014. At least 35 people were killed when protests turned violent, although the circumstances of their deaths are unclear — and the HDP has called for an investigation into the role of Turkish police and far-right groups in the violence. It is in connection with these protests that the 82 arrest warrants were issued on September 25 of this year.
Several months after the protests, on July 20, 2015, a socialist youth group heading to Kobanê to help reconstruct the town after the ISIS attack was repelled was hit by an ISIS suicide bombing in the town of Suruç, near the Syrian border. 34 people were killed and over 100 more injured. The allegations of Turkish support for ISIS led many to believe that the state was involved in the bombing — or at least negligent in allowing it to happen.
In response to the bombing, the PKK’s armed wing claimed responsibility for the assassination of two police officers in Ceylanpınar on July 22, although high-level PKK officials later denied involvement. Turkey in turn began a campaign of airstrikes against PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan. These airstrikes ended a fragile peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK, leading to a new round of fighting which continues today.
“Calling on the Turkish state to prevent an ISIS massacre in Kobanê is now synonymous with support for the PKK and therefore is itself a form of terrorism in today’s Turkey.”
Increasing repression in Turkey
Democracy has never had very firm roots in Turkey, as the country experienced a series of coups and periods of military dictatorship in the second half of the 20th century. Although Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) originally came to power in democratic elections, it has since become increasingly authoritarian.
The repression of political and media opposition escalated dramatically following a failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, which the Turkish government blamed on the organization of U.S.-based religious leader and former Erdoğan ally Fethullah Gülen.
In the days following the coup attempt, over “45,000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors and civil servants [were] fired, detained or suspended”, according to the Washington Post, while 15,000 education workers were suspended. By September 2016, over 32,000 people in total had been arrested in connection with the coup attempt.
The repression soon spread beyond those suspected of ties to the Gülen movement to encompass journalists, independent news organizations, and the left-wing opposition party HDP. The HDP, often described as “pro-Kurdish” because of its advocacy for minority rights and peace with the PKK, also campaigns for participatory democracy, feminist and LGBTQ rights, and labour and environmental causes. Although the HDP is a legal party in Turkey – they rose to 13% of the vote in the 2015 general election, becoming the third-largest parliamentary group – Erdoğan has accused it of being a front group for the PKK.
The former co-leaders of the party, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been in detention since November 2016 under a variety of charges, including supporting terrorism. Dozens of other HDP officials have been arrested since then and the HDP-affiliated mayors of many towns and cities have been replaced by administrators appointed by the central government.
This repression means the post-2016 political environment of Turkey is vastly different from 2014. Calling on the Turkish state to prevent an ISIS massacre in Kobanê is now synonymous with support for the PKK and therefore is itself a form of terrorism in today’s Turkey. The arrest of Erdal and 19 other members of the HDP seems to represent a broader campaign to eliminate the HDP and political opposition in Turkey generally, within a context that has seen accusations of voter fraud by the governing AKP and constitutional changes that centralize power in Erdoğan’s presidential office.
Canada’s response to Erdal’s arrest
The government of Canada has so far not commented publicly on the arrest. When reached by The Leveller, Global Affairs Canada did not answer detailed questions. Spokesperson John Babcock instead sent a statement saying, “Global Affairs Canada is aware of the detention of a permanent resident of Canada in Turkey. Our thoughts are with Mr Erdal’s family and loved ones during this difficult time. Canada has raised concerns with Turkish authorities and continues to monitor this case closely.”
This statement leaves it unclear which Turkish authorities specifically were contacted and what exactly was communicated to them. In particular, nothing in the statement indicates that Canada-Turkey relations will be in any way affected by the arrest. It is possible that Turkey’s role as one of Canada’s NATO partners makes the Canadian government wary of upsetting the government of Turkey by issuing a strong condemnation of the arrest. It is also possible that Erdal’s status as a permanent resident rather than a citizen of Canada makes the Canadian government less willing to put pressure on Turkey in order to secure his release.
The Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, where Erdal is a PhD student, has issued a statement condemning Erdal’s arrest “in the strongest possible terms.” According to CBC, the university has asked Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, the Canadian embassy in Turkey, and the Turkish embassy in Canada to help secure Erdal’s release.
The Executive Board of CUPE 4600, the union representing Carleton teaching assistants and contract instructors, likewise released a statement calling for Erdal’s “immediate release.” A number of other academic, labour and civil society organizations have released similar statements. A petition of scholars and academics across Canada calling for Erdal to be freed also drew hundreds of signatures, as did a public petition.
As of the time of publication, Erdal remains in detention in Ankara. It is unclear whether or not he has been able to meet with a lawyer or whether the specific charges against him have been presented. Other HDP members arrested at the same time as Erdal have begun a “food boycott” in response to what they say was food poisoning from the meals provided in jail. The embassy of Turkey in Ottawa did not answer questions regarding Erdal’s arrest and the conditions of his detention by the time of publication.
A website has been set up for the campaign to free Erdal, asking Canadians to write to their members of Parliament to get the government of Canada to work for his release. There is also a Twitter account associated with the campaign, which has asked supporters to use the hashtags #FreeCihanErdal and #LiberezCihanErdal to raise awareness.
HDP: People’s Democratic Party, a Turkish parliamentary party that campaigns for minority rights and participatory democracy
PKK: Kurdistan Workers’ Party, revolutionaries who operate mostly in Turkey
PYD: Democratic Union Party, the equivalent of the PKK in Northern Syria
YPG: the People’s Protection Units, the northern Syrian Kurds militia run by the PYD
ISI: the Islamic State of Iraq, an early iteration of ISIS
ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, neither a real state nor truly Islamic
AKP: Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, the ruling party of Turkey