HRW: Turkey: Kurdish Mayors’ Removal Violates Voters’ Rights- End Politically Motivated Arrests and Trials

The Turkish authorities’ removal and arrest of democratically elected Kurdish mayors across southeastern Turkey violates voters’ rights, Human Rights Watch said today. 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.
Diyarbakır residents hold a banner and march in protest against the removal of elected mayors.

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.
İkiköprü co-mayor Hatice Taş is blocked from entering the municipality building by police after the Interior Ministry removed her and the other co-mayor Osman Karabulut and appointed a state-appointed trustee as a replacement in İkiköprü town, Batman prov
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İkiköprü co-mayor Hatice Taş is blocked from entering the municipality building by police after the Interior Ministry removed her and the other co-mayor Osman Karabulut and appointed a state-appointed trustee as a replacement in İkiköprü town, Batman province, southeast Turkey, December 2019. © 2019 Mezopotamya Agency (MA)

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.”
Police block access to the Diyarbakır municipal building after the Interior Ministry replaces the elected mayor with a state-appointed trustee to govern the largest city in Turkey’s Southeast, August 2019.
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Police block access to the Diyarbakır municipal building after the Interior Ministry replaces the elected mayor with a state-appointed trustee to govern the largest city in Turkey’s Southeast, August 2019. © 2019 Mezopotamya Agency (MA)

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.”

For details of the actions against the elected mayors, please see below.

Moves Against Elected Mayors Since 2016

The Turkish government’s first move to capture municipalities and suspend local government in the mainly Kurdish eastern and southeastern regions came in 2016. Under the state of emergency that followed the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the government amended articles 45 and 57 of the Law on Municipalities through an August 15, 2016 decree. The amendments to the law effectively authorized removing mayors the government accused of supporting terrorism, however unsubstantiated the claim and subjective the assessment. Previously, only a final conviction, instead of an initial investigation, would have justified removing a mayor.

Amendments to the Municipalities Law in decree no. 674 were subsequently incorporated into permanent law (no. 6758/article 34-35). The law also provides that the authorities should review any measure to remove a serving mayor at two-month intervals, but no mayor has yet been reinstated as a result of such a review.

When the removal of 94 elected mayors in the southeast and eastern regions began in October 2016, government-appointed trustees, either the provincial governor or the district governor, took over the mayors’ functions. While the local councils were not officially dissolved, the trustees did not convene them, effectively preventing them from functioning.

Several of the mayors removed in 2016-17 remain in prison, convicted of terrorism offenses. The former Diyarbakir mayor, Gültan Kışanak, was convicted by a lower court of membership of a terrorist organization and spreading terrorist propaganda and sentenced to 14 years and 3 months in prison. Human Rights Watch previously examined the indictment against Kışanak and determined that the case lacked compelling evidence of criminal activity or of any activity that could reasonably be described as terrorism. The local appeals court overturned the sentence, and Kışanak’s retrial is underway. Kışanak has been in pretrial detention in Kandıra F-type prison since October 31, 2016.

In advance of the 2019 local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again raised the prospect of removing mayors. On October 7, 2018, he made a speech in Kızılcahamam, Ankara, saying: “If in the upcoming elections people involved in terrorism win at the polls, we will not wait, we will continue on our way with the trustee appointments immediately. No waiting.”

The president repeated the same message during an election rally in the central Anatolian town of Yozgat on February 25, 2019.

On March 18, the Interior Ministry released a report justifying the appointment of trustees in 2016-17, raising concerns that the government already had plans to replace mayors with trustees. In the report, the ministry contended that appointing trustees was not a choice but an obligation and a legal duty, disregarding the political implications of such a move and the scant evidence in the earlier cases that mayors had been engaged in criminal activity.

After the election, in an April 10 decision the Higher Election Board approved the district election boards’ decisions to deny office to anyone elected – whether as mayor or council member – who had been dismissed from an earlier position as a public official under Turkey’s state of emergency. The main political party affected was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

According to the HDP, six elected HDP mayors were refused office on this basis and at least 47 elected members of provincial and district municipal councils were similarly barred from assuming public office.

Human Rights Watch has seen a copy of the Higher Election Board decision relating to the mayor and some council members from Bağlar Municipality, Diyarbakır. In those cases, the Higher Election Board arbitrarily offered their seats to the runner-up party rather than setting a new election, awarding the seats to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

On August 19, the Interior Ministry issued decisions to remove the elected mayors of the three largest municipalities in the region: Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, mayor of Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality; Bedia Özgökçe Ertan, mayor of Van Metropolitan Municipality; and Ahmet Türk, mayor of Mardin Metropolitan Municipality. On the same day, the ministry also announced on Twitter the detentions of 418 people in 29 provinces, many of them either municipal staff or HDP members.

The ministry cited as grounds for removing the three mayors a series of ongoing prosecutions and investigations against them for crimes such as being a leading member or member of the PKK, spreading terrorist propaganda, praising crimes and criminals, and misconduct.
The ministry claimed that all three municipalities “supported terrorist activities by working to turn them into sources for providing militants, financial resources and equipment.”

As an example of criminal activity, the ministry cited the mayors’ adoption of a co-mayor system. This practice was introduced by the HDP’s predecessor Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) after local elections on March 30, 2014. To promote gender equality, a man and a woman shared the mayor’s role, with one officially elected and the other selected as co-mayor from among the elected council members. The ministry also cited as examples of criminal activity that municipalities informally employed people who had previously been dismissed from municipalities and relatives of deceased PKK members, and that mayors had attended PKK militants’ funerals.

On the day the ministry removed the three mayors, it supplied the pro-government media with a report accusing the three of links with terrorism. The ministry’s allegations were circulated before any information about formal criminal investigations from the prosecutors’ offices was made available to the mayors or their lawyers. Human Rights Watch later obtained a copy of the English translation of the report.

On August 25, 2019, Erdoğan personally joined the smear campaign, alleging that the mayors were removed because they sent taxpayers’ money to the PKK in the Kandil mountains of northern Iraq. No allegation of this kind was made in the prosecutor’s November 2019 criminal indictment against Mızraklı. New criminal investigations against Türk and Özgökçe Ertan have not been announced or concluded.

The authorities detained the Kulp co-mayors, Mehmet Fatih Taş and Fatma Ay, after a PKK attack on September 12, which killed seven villagers in a rural part of Diyarbakır’s Kulp district. The court sent them and other suspects to pretrial detention and replaced the mayors with the Kulp district governor. With no evidence of any links between Taş and Ay and the PKK attack, they and three others were released two months later at their first trial hearing, but they have not been reinstated.

After Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria, the removal and jailing of HDP mayors in southeast Turkey increased dramatically. Turkey justified the Syria operation by alleging that the Kurdish autonomous administration in the area had close links to the PKK. The government holds the same view of the HDP mayors. The government continued to detain mayors, while announcing criminal investigations against them and replacing them with trustees. Mayors from 29 municipalities were removed between October 17 and December 23. Twenty-three remain in pretrial detention.

Weak and Vague Grounds for Terrorism Investigations, Prosecution, Detention

Human Rights Watch has examined the evidence of alleged terrorism links in the indictments against Mızraklı and three other mayors and cited in court rulings as grounds for pretrial detention. The indictment against Mızraklı contains no compelling evidence of criminal activity, let alone activity that could reasonably be argued to amount to participation in violent or deadly acts, logistical support for violent acts, or incitement to violence. Human Rights Watch found that the court decisions to detain other mayors lacked compelling grounds to justify the measure and offered formulaic reasoning.

Mızraklı’s Detention, Prosecution

The Turkish police detained Mızraklı on October 21 and a day later a court ruled that he should be held in pretrial detention. Mızraklı was notified while in a police cell that his removal from office as mayor had been extended. On November 1, the prosecutor issued an indictment against him on charges of “membership of a terrorist organization.” At his first trial hearing on December 25, he was not released from pretrial detention and the case was postponed until February 10. The prosecutor issued an opinion on January 27 requesting Mızraklı’s conviction.

The main claim against Mızraklı in the indictment is by a witness, Hicran Berna Ayverdi, who spent almost three years in pretrial detention on charges of armed separatism, for allegedly providing medical treatment to injured combatants in the southeastern town of Nusaybin during the 2015-16 conflict there. Ayverdi testified before the court at Mızraklı’s December 25 first hearing that in 2012-13 she had worked in a private hospital in Diyarbakır, where she alleged that Mızraklı, a surgeon at the hospital, had operated on a PKK militant.

Ayverdi made a series of allegations about Mızraklı’s political engagement and claims that he was acting on behalf of the PKK while discharging his professional duties as a surgeon. Mızraklı has denied the allegations. Administering medical treatment to sick patients is a fundamental duty of all doctors regardless of the identity of the patient and cannot in itself be construed as a criminal act, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities first brought Ayverdi to testify before the prosecutor against Mızraklı on March 20, 2019, shortly before voting in the local elections, when he was leading in the polls and likely to win. Mızraklı received 62 percent of the vote. Similarly, on March 27, authorities had Ayverdi testify against Keziban Yılmaz, mayor of Kayapınar, who was also leading his district’s polling. Yılmaz received 66 percent of the vote.

Lawyers confirmed media reports that Ayverdi was released from detention by court order on September 5, but that her trial continues.

The prosecutors’ indictment and opinion also claim as evidence of membership of the PKK that Mızraklı was formerly chair of Sarmaşık, an association focused on combatting poverty by providing food aid. The government closed the group down in 2016 under the state of emergency, citing links to the PKK, but there has never been a criminal case against it. Mızraklı’s indictment suggests the group was linked to terrorism because the people who received its aid included families of PKK fighters. The prosecutors also allege that Mızraklı was involved with a platform called the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), which the authorities now accuse of being a PKK organ, though it has functioned for years without being closed or sanctioned.

The indictment also cites as evidence against Mızraklı his attendance at 12 public assemblies and demonstrations, including funerals of militants, his foreign travel, and some social media postings. Mızraklı’s postings on Twitter were collected in a report on March 26, 2019, five days before the local elections. “While ….[the social media] does not in itself contain elements constituting terrorist propaganda, it has been determined that they contain posts regarding the organization’s [PKK] leader and hunger strikes and are supportive of the organization [PKK],” the indictment says.

On December 3, Mızraklı informed Human Rights Watch through his lawyers that during his ten-hour transfer from prison in Diyarbakır to Bunyan Prison in Kayseri province in Central Anatolia, he was kept handcuffed for the whole trip. Keziban Yılmaz and Rojda Nazlıer, the jailed mayors of Kayapınar and Kocaköy, were transferred with Mızraklı. Yilmaz also confirmed through her lawyers that they had not been given anything to eat or drink and had only one toilet break of 10 minutes.

Court Decisions on Pretrial Detention; Protected Witness Testimony

In the 18 cases of detained mayors that Human Rights Watch examined, the courts rely on three main kinds of “evidence” as grounds for pretrial detention. They are vague testimony by witnesses; the mayors’ attendance at political meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and funerals of militants; and their social media postings, in some cases from several years earlier.

In most cases, the identity of the witnesses is protected – the Turkish term is “secret witness.” They allege that the mayors are associated with certain activist organizations that operated without hindrance for years but that the authorities now regard as PKK-linked. Or they assert in a generalized and vague way that that the mayors undertook unspecified activities for the armed group.

In many cases, the courts simply accept that the prosecutor’s evidence meets the criteria for pretrial detention of reasonable suspicion of “membership of a terrorist organization.” This is a “catalogue offense” in Turkey’s Criminal Procedure Code, which means courts are automatically permitted to rule that suspects under investigation for this crime can be held in pretrial detention.

It is important to note that in making their determinations on whether the evidence constitutes reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed, courts demonstrated no need to probe protected witnesses’ generalized and vague assertions against suspects, or to question their motivation or why their identity has to be protected. This means that suspects are at a great disadvantage at court hearings in challenging the evidence presented against them to justify their initial pretrial detention. They often have little possibility of challenging subsequent decisions to prolong their detention during the months before the prosecutor issues an indictment.

The accusations against some mayors discussed below highlight the problematic use of protected witness testimonies. A full discussion of all evidence in all cases – including records of their attendance at political events, rallies, and funerals, plus social media posts that do not advocate violence – is not attempted here.

In the case of Yıldız Çetin, co-mayor of Erciş district of Van province, three protected witnesses made various vague claims. One said she was involved with a platform called the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), which the authorities now accuse of being an organ of the PKK though it has functioned for years without being closed or sanctioned. Another said she was part of an activist organization called the Free Women’s Congress (KJA), similarly now accused of being part of the PKK though it operated for years without being investigated.

In the case of Keziban Yılmaz, mayor of Kayapınar district of Diyarbakır and a human rights lawyer, Hicran Berna Ayverdi, the main witness against Mızraklı too, made a series of vague and wide-ranging claims on March 27, 2019, four days before the local elections. She claimed that Yılmaz was affiliated with the KJA; that as a lawyer she conveyed information between prisoners and the PKK; that she was a member of the Mesopotamian Lawyers’ Association, which was arbitrarily closed down by state of emergency decree; and that she was involved in PKK-run investigations of women’s personal relationships.

Yilmaz denies all these allegations apart from her affiliation with the Mesopotamian Lawyers’ Association. The court cited her social media postings, none of which have supported violence, as further grounds to detain her. At her first trial hearing on January 15, 2020, the Diyarbakır court extended Yılmaz’s pretrial detention.

In the case of Ferhat Kut, the detained co-mayor of Nusaybin, a protected witness claimed in a generalized way that Kut participated in protests on the orders of the PKK and attended a 2015 news conference in Nusaybin at which a declaration of local self-governance was read out. Kut denies both allegations.

In the case of Azim Yacan, co-mayor of İpekyolu district of Van province, a protected witness claimed that Yacan carried out media work for the PKK, and that he removed pictures of Atatürk and Erdoğan from the wall in the municipality office. Yacan denies all the claims. Protected witnesses also made vague claims that he and the co-mayor, Şehzade Kurt, provided the PKK with blankets intended for Afghan refugees and cable.

The evidence in the case of İrfan Sarı, mayor of Yüksekova district of Hakkari province, consisted of an unsupported allegation by a named witness that Sarı collected and sent money to the PKK in his position as head of the local Chamber of Tradesmen and Artisans. He refutes the accusation.

Sarı’s family told Human Rights Watch that he was detained at gunpoint at his home at dawn on October 15, 2019 and forced to lie on the floor as a police officer shouted at him that he would be shot if he turned his head. He was then taken to the municipality and made to sit on a chair in his office with his hands cuffed behind him while the police conducted a search. Sarı confirmed these allegations in writing through his lawyers.

In the case of Hatice Çevik, elected mayor of the Suruç district of Urfa, the court cited as evidence to justify her pretrial detention on November 20, 2019 that she had participated in protests against the removal of the mayor in Diyarbakır, her social media postings, and the allegation she employed family members of deceased PKK militants at the municipality. There is no witness testimony against her.