Turkey's high court nixes pro-Kurd party, sparks turbulence

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The unanimous decision by Turkey’s high court to ban the country’s largest pro-Kurdish party over alleged terrorist links has sent the country into a state of political uncertainty.

While not unexpected, the move has sparked turbulence in the mainly Kurdish southeast and threatens to jeopardize the efforts by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) to resolve the bloody, 25-year conflict with the Kurds through peaceful means.

As news of the ban spread, furious protesters became violent Saturday, using rocks and firebombs against the police. In the town of Yuksekova, close to Turkey's borders with Iraq and Iran, a crowd pelted an armored police bus with stones, as firebombs hit two other armored vehicles, Dogan news agency video showed. In neighboring Hakkari, a mob attempted to lynch two police officers but were prevented from doing so by local Kurdish politicians.

After four days of deliberation, the constitutional court in Ankara ruled that the Democratic Society party (DTP) was undermining national security and cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since the 1980s.

The DTP chairman, Ahmet Turk, and 36 members were banned from politics for five years. The party will also be stripped of its assets by the Treasury. While maintaining that he still held out hope for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish conflict, Turk said that the ban would be counterproductive.

Saturday all 21 DTP deputies in Turkey's 544-seat parliament announced their resignation, raising the possibility of by-elections in several districts of Turkey’s southeast.

“Turkey is going through a process, and we firmly believe one day they will be ready. Democracy and peace will become a reality," said Turk, adding that the conflict could not be resolved by party closures, but “only through the use of reason, logic and dialogue.”

The court's chairman, Hasim Kilic, defended the ban, saying that the DTP had rejected peaceful politics and left the court with no choice but to close the party down. Kilic did not cite the specific allegations that led to the verdict, which is expected to be published in full next week.

"A political party has to make a distinction between pro-terror and peaceful messages," he said. “The European Court of Human Rights is clear on this point.”

The EU, however, expressed concern over Friday's ruling, dealing yet another blow to Turkey’s hopes of membership.

"While strongly denouncing violence and terrorism, the presidency recalls that the dissolution of political parties is an exceptional measure that should be used with utmost restraint," said the EU's Swedish presidency in a statement reported by Reuters.

In the weeks leading up to the court’s decision, protests over the case in Turkey’s southeast grew in both scale and violence, feeding the anger of the conservative establishment, who tend to regard Kurdish aspirations for more autonomy as a threat to national unity. A protest last week in Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city, turned violent and a young student was shot and killed. A day later, seven soldiers died in an ambush the government blamed on the PKK, further escalating tensions.

“This has been a problem for a long time and it will take the government time to change things,” said Muharrem Sahin, a human rights lawyer in Diyarbakir. “In the meantime, I’m afraid that the violence will continue.”

The progress represented by the government’s “democratic initiative” is the most likely casualty of yesterday’s ruling. Aimed at ending the decades of bloody conflict that the Kurdish issue has resulted in, the plan consists of various reforms designed to give Turkey's Kurds long-withheld political and cultural rights, such as the free use of the Kurdish language in the media and political campaigns and a new committee to fight discrimination.

"Today is the beginning of a new timeline and a fresh start," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament in a historic debate last month. "We took a courageous step to resolve chronic issues that constitute an obstacle along Turkey’s development, progression and empowerment."

But while the DTP applauded the government’s efforts, it refused to call for the PKK to lay down its arms or to denounce the rebels as a terrorist organization, as Turkey, the EU and the U.S. define them.

This is hardly the first time Turkey has banned or overthrown political parties deemed a threat to the state. With Friday’s ruling DTP took the dubious honor of being the 25th political party closed down in Turkey since 1962.

“The court’s decision to ban yet another party shows just how urgently constitutional reform is needed to guarantee political participation in Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Democratic Society Party is the latest victim of laws that do not conform with international human rights standards.”

The case against the DTP was brought two years ago by Turkey's chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, who also tried unsuccessfully to close down the governing AKP last year on grounds that it was a threat to Turkey’s secularism.

“This is what needed to be done,” said Serkan Cetin, a worker at a kebab shop in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. “They tried to break us apart, they sided with terrorists. There is nothing more to say.”

Others argue that by undermining confidence in the democratic process, the ban will strengthen the PKK’s hand at a time when Kurdish reform was just taking hold.

“Kurds have the right to a voice, to their language, to their culture and to human rights,” said Sheila Mosley, co-chair of the International Support Kurds in Syria Association. “Whenever they find people to represent them the group is closed by the Turkish authorities. How can we stand back and let this happen?”