Monday, 07 November 2011

The Latest KCK Arrests: One Step Closer to Breaking Point

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 4, no. 21 of the Turkey Analyst)

On November 1, 2011, a court in Istanbul formally charged 23 suspects with membership of the Union of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization controlled by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and ordered that they be imprisoned pending trial. The suspects included Professor Büşra Ersanlı, a respected academic from Istanbul’s Marmara University, and Ragıp Zarakolu, a prominent publisher and human rights activist. The decision to arrest Ersanlı and Zarakolu is another blow to already fading hopes that the AKP government’s new appetite for confrontation will be replaced by a desire to solve the Kurdish problem through dialogue and conciliation.

BACKGROUND: Since the KCK investigation was launched in April 2009, nearly 8,000 people have been detained on charges of membership of the organization, of whom almost 4,000 have been formally arrested. No convincing evidence has been produced to link either Ersanlı or Zarakolu to the PKK. Their arrests have led to renewed accusations that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using the KCK investigation as an instrument to try to crush all opposition to its increasingly hawkish policies on the Kurdish issue.

The KCK is the brainchild of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since February 1999. In March 2005, Öcalan announced a blueprint for a transnational, pyramidical structure of representative committees and assemblies, whose members would be drawn from the Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Diaspora in Europe. The pyramid would culminate in a 300-member assembly known as Kongra-Gel. Originally known as the Democratic Confederation of Kurdistan (KKK), the KCK would supposedly incorporate all ethnic Kurds and operate in parallel to the existing political structures in the countries in which they lived. Quite how this parallel relationship would function has never been clearly defined; and has never been tested as the PKK is illegal in all of the countries in which the KCK would be implemented.

In practice, the KCK has served as a theoretical organizational framework for the PKK, its branches, affiliates and sympathizers. No elections have been held in Kurdish communities – either overtly or clandestinely – for membership of the KCK’s constituent bodies, whose composition is decided by the PKK leadership. Although Kongra-Gel holds meetings in the mountains of northern Iraq, the assembly is exclusively composed of PKK supporters. The chair of Kongra Gel’s 31-member Executive Committee is Murat Karayılan, who – in Öcalan’s absence – is now the de factoleader of the PKK. 

In Turkey, membership of an “armed terrorist organization” is a criminal offence under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation. Turkish courts have traditionally adopted a very loose definition of “membership” to include not only armed militants but also those active on the margins of proscribed organizations, regardless of whether or not they are directly or indirectly involved in the planning or execution of acts of violence. In the KCK investigation, this principle appears to have been taken one step further and the definition of “membership of a terrorist organization” extended to those who share the PKK’s stated goal of greater rights and freedoms for Turkey’s Kurds. As a result, although some of those charged with membership of the KCK are PKK activists and sympathizers, many others appear guilty of nothing more than advocating greater Kurdish cultural and language rights. Indeed, several of those recently arrested on allegations of belonging to the KCK are known to abhor the often brutally violent methods by which the PKK pursues its goals.

The first hearing in the KCK trial was held in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakır on October 17, 2010. The indictment was not only prodigiously long at 7,578 pages but riddled with absurdities and contradictions; while the conduct of the investigation displayed a repeated disregard for due process. Yet it was not until spring 2011 that the KCK investigation really began to gather pace. Almost half of the detentions and arrests in the case have occurred since April 2011.

The intensification of the investigation coincided with the adoption by the AKP of an increasingly hard-line stance on the Kurdish issue going into the June 12, 2011 general election; and a very aggressive policy towards the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Five of the BDP’s 35 successful candidates in the June 2011 election have so far been unable to take their seats in parliament because they are being held on remand in prison on charges of belonging to the KCK.

Until recently, nearly all of the detentions in the KCK case took place in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. However, over the last month there has been a rise in the number of arrests in the west of the country. Ersanlı and Zarakolu were among around 50 suspects taken into custody in a series of raids on October 28-29, mostly in Istanbul. 
Ersanlı, an ethnic Turk, is a member of the BDP. Zarakolu is not. The charges against him appear to be mainly based on his attendance at conferences organized by the BDP. In an interview with the CNNTurk news channel on November 2, Interior Minister Naim Şahin claimed – without providing any proof -- that Ersanlı had used her lectures at university to instruct students on how to instigate an armed insurrection against the government; an accusation that has been ridiculed by both her colleagues and her students.

IMPLICATIONS: The KCK investigation is the third in a series of highly-politicized mass trials under the AKP. The first, the notorious Ergenekon investigation, primarily targeted secularists and Turkish nationalists and was later expanded to critics of the case. The second, the Sledgehammer investigation, was directed exclusively at the Turkish military. Although there are differences between them, all three nevertheless share certain features. These include extraordinarily long indictments characterized by simplistic irrationalities and inherent contradictions, the fabrication or distortion of evidence and a presumption that espousing a desired end is proof of membership of an organization committed to using violence to achieve it.

Similarly, accusations that the cases are ideologically motivated have focused not so much on the AKP but on activists from the movement of the influential Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, who are now alleged to dominate both the Turkish police and the judicial system. Such allegations are impossible to prove; although the frequency with which critics of the movement have been arrested and imprisoned on manifestly groundless charges has done nothing to allay them. But there is no doubting the vigor with which the media organs controlled by the Gülen movement have supported the cases; including repeatedly misrepresenting their findings and launching smear campaigns against anyone who comments on their manifest flaws.

In recent years, the Gülen movement has been conducting a concerted campaign to expand its influence in southeast Turkey, primarily through the activities of its NGOs – which have received extensive political and financial support from the central government in Ankara. This has brought the Gülenists into competition – and sometimes conflict – with NGOs run by secular Kurdish nationalists such as the BDP. As a result, regardless of whether or not it is driving the KCK investigation, the Gülen movement has certainly benefited from the detention of thousands of secular Kurdish nationalists.

However, in recent months, the movement’s support for the KCK investigation and for the AKP’s aggressive stance on the Kurdish issue had increasingly strained its once close ties with the influential cabal of political commentators known as “liberal intellectuals”. Most are former leftists who share the Gülen movement’s disdain for Turkey’s once powerful military-dominated secularist establishment; and have joined it in enthusiastically supporting the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases. But the arrests of Ersanlı and Zarakolu – both well-known and well-liked in former leftist circles – have probably dealt the final blow to the alliance. Hüseyin Gülerce, the most influential of the Gülen movement’s journalists, admitted as such in his column in the movement’s flagship newspaper Zaman, which was published on November 2, the day after Ersanlı and Zarakolu were formally arrested and entitled simply “The KCK, the Liberals and the parting of the ways…”

Yet the Gülen movement is now so influential and the AKP so entrenched in power that they could convincingly argue that they no longer need any other support. Nor will they have forgotten the outcry that followed the March 2011 arrest of the prominent leftist journalist Ahmet Şık on charges of belonging to Ergenekon. Eight months later, Şık remains in prison; his fate, like that of the hundreds of others imprisoned and awaiting trial under the KCK, Sledgehammer and Ergenekon investigations, almost completely ignored by the Turkish media.

CONCLUSIONS: In addition to reinforcing growing concerns about the politicization of the Turkish judicial system, the decision to arrest Ersanlı and Zarakolu has come as another blow to already fading hopes that the AKP’s new appetite for confrontation will be replaced by a desire to solve the Kurdish problem through dialogue and conciliation.

After the AKP was returned to power for a third successive term in the June 12, 2011 general election, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the government’s main priority would be the drafting of a new constitution, promising that it would address all the legitimate concerns of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. After initially boycotting the assembly in protest at the continued imprisonment of five of its deputies, the BDP finally travelled to Ankara for the opening of the new parliamentary year on October 1, 2011. One week later, despite its reservations about the sincerity of Erdoğan’s pledge, the BDP met with the AKP for a preliminary meeting about the possible contents of the new constitution. One of the participants in the meeting was Ersanlı, who attended as a member of the BDP’s constitutional commission.

On November 1, the same day as an Istanbul court formally arrested Ersanlı and Zarakolu, Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek held a press conference to reassure the public that the new constitution would be drafted after consulting with all sections of society. It is possible that Çiçek was being personally sincere but it is difficult to believe that his words reflected the attitude of the AKP government or its supporters in the judicial system. Nor were the AKP’s claims of the independence of the judiciary helped by Interior Minister Şahin’s prompt proclamation of Ersanlı’s presumed guilt the following day.

Under the circumstances, even if the BDP continues to meet with the AKP to discuss the new constitution, it is difficult to see how it can be convinced to trust the government. Yet without trust, it is unlikely to make any comprises; and the BDP and the AKP are currently so far apart – the former insisting on autonomy for predominantly Kurdish areas, the latter refusing to consider any changes to the current unitary system – that without comprises there can be no agreement. For many Kurds, the new constitution represents a last chance. If it fails to provide sufficient concessions on greater political and cultural rights, the pressure from below – particularly from the younger, more demanding, generation of Kurds – is going to focus not on autonomy but full independence.

Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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