The Turkish authorities’ removal and arrest of democratically elected Kurdish mayors across southeastern Turkey violates voters’ rights, Human Rights Watch said. The Turkish government is intensifying its attack on the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) by removing the mayors and preventing the functioning of elected local councils across Turkey’s southeast.
Twenty-three mayors are in pretrial detention on allegations that they committed terrorist offenses. One of them, Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, the elected mayor of Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality, has a second trial hearing on February 10, 2020 on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization.” Although the prosecutor has issued a legal opinion requesting Mızraklı’s conviction, the evidence in an indictment against him does not support the charge that he was involved with terrorism or committed crimes.
“Removing, detaining, and putting on trial local Kurdish politicians as armed militants with no compelling evidence of criminal activity seems to be the Turkish government’s preferred way to wipe out political opposition,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These cases are not linked to any legitimate counterterrorism effort but trample the rights of the mayors and the 1.8 million voters who elected them.”
Dismissals and detention of Kurdish mayors from the left-leaning pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) rapidly increased after Turkey’s October 9, 2019 military incursion into northeast Syria to remove Syrian Kurdish forces and administration controlling the area. Since then, the courts have ordered that mayors be held in pretrial detention pending completion of investigations and trials for alleged links to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The removals and arrests show every sign of continuing, Human Rights Watch said. The removal of the mayors and disempowerment of local councils has effectively canceled the results of the March 31 local elections in the most populous cities of the southeast and eastern provinces.
The actions against the mayors began in August with the removal of the prominent HDP mayors in the three biggest cities of southeast and eastern Turkey, prompting protests against the government’s actions in Diyarbakır.
Thirty-two HDP mayors in the region have been stripped of their office and replaced with Ankara-appointed provincial and district governor “trustees.” After their appointment, trustees did not convene the local councils – effectively neutering their decision-making role in local government. The HDP won 65 municipalities in the region in the March local election.
Human Rights Watch was able to examine 18 cases in which courts ordered the pretrial detention of mayors, as well as records of their testimony before prosecutors and, in three cases, prosecutors’ indictments. The court decisions relied on vague and generalized allegations against the mayors by witnesses, some secret, and on details of their political activities and social media postings, which fail to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that would justify detention, Human Rights Watch found.
The prosecutor prepared an indictment against Mızraklı within days of his October 22 detention and his trial began on December 25.
This is the second time the authorities have systematically suspended local democracy for Kurdish voters in that region. Under the state of emergency that followed the July 2016 attempted coup, the Erdoğan government introduced amendments to the Municipalities Law, and took direct control of 94 HDP municipalities and removed mayors and councils who had won at the polls in 2014 local elections. Those mayors detained in 2016-17 have also been subjected to politically motivated prosecutions.
“Turkey should end the politically motivated use of terrorism charges to detain and prosecute political opponents,” said Williamson. “Parliament should repeal the changes it made to the Municipalities Law under the state of emergency, which are being used to justify the arbitrary removal and detention of mayors.”
The European Union Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called the removal of the three mayors in August “of serious concern as it puts the respect of the democratic outcomes of the 31 March elections into question.” The president of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe also expressed grave concern, reminding Turkey that the Congress had previously warned against “the excessive use of legal proceedings against local elected representatives in Turkey and their replacement by appointed officials.” A European Parliament resolution on September 19, 2019 called on the Turkish authorities “to reinstate all mayors and other elected officials who won local elections on 31 March 2019.”
“Turkey used its military incursion into northeast Syria as a pretext to intensify its crackdown on a democratically elected parliamentary opposition party,” Williamson said. “The Erdoğan administration is closing down legal politics in the southeast and potentially fueling support for violent, undemocratic and illegal alternatives.”