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Meeting with DISK union 10th February 2017
Bernd Riexinger, Martina Michels, Andrej Hunko

What Happens in Turkey Affects all of Europe - A Travel Report

From 9 to 11 of February 2017, MEP Martina Michels together with Bernd Riexinger, Co-Chair of DIE LINKE and Andrej Hunko (MP in the German Bundestag and member of the European Council) visited several NGOs, trade unions, HDP-representatives, lawyers and academics in Istanbul, Turkey.

Initially it was planned to visit imprisoned politicians, including the co-chairs of the HDP, Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş. Unfortunately the requested visits were rejected by the Turkish government. However, it was a good decision to take this journey anyway also without the permission for the visits. A final comment from a friend in Istanbul on our visit was: "Even if you are here for three days only, your visit lingers on for three months..."

At the time we arrived it was still uncertain for one more day, whether Erdoğan would actually announce the planned referendum for his transformation into a presidential Turkey. However, only one day later, on February 10, he signed the decree for which the Parliament had already paved the way. Now, the referendum will take place on April 16, 2017.

State-sponsored revenge against the opposition

At the beginning of our visit, we had a meeting with the lawyers of Figen Yüksekdağ, Selahattin Demirtaş and others. They visited the co-chair right before and brought us regards from Selahattin Demirtaş. The lawyers Levent Pişkin and Ramazan Demir, who had already been arrested for a short while, emphasized the absurdity of these indictments. The indictments are based on speeches the co-chairs held in the past. Actually the prosecution has no other reason than to restrict the MPs in the exercise of their mandate as opposition politicians. The prosecution criminalized the regular work of politicians because they are seen as being critical towards the AKP-opinions. Apart from this, the whole process of investigation is an endless network of regional hearings, in which the defendants are switched because the accusations are negotiated individually - „case by case“.

Additionally, the conditions of detention zones and the visit system lack any framework of legal treatment. For one and a half year all HDP-politicians have been denied visits in general, except for their closest relatives. The entire exercising of power since the June 2015 elections is - instead of a political debate - a state-based act of revenge against the political opposition and the protests within the society in Turkey.

The lawyers explained that Article 83 of the Turkish constitution was amended in June 2016 - it deals with parliamentary immunity - and thus the prosecution of deputies became possible. Moreover, prosecutions became also possible retroactive, even applying for actions before June 2016.

The politicians of the HDP decided to make no statements at all within the scope of these criminal charges. Actually, according to the lawyers, they stated: Under ordinary circumstances we were against immunity laws, too. Legal breaches must be amenable to deputies as well. But this change in Turkish law was directed especially against the HDP-opposition. On 4/11/2016 the police came to the deputies without arrest warrants. In the meantime, there were eleven detentions and 90% were based on statements made by the deputies when they exercised their regularly activities as politicians.

In the night of February 9, our first day in Istanbul, 58 HDP members from Istanbul were arrested and 100 in the whole country. In particular the speakers of district branches of the HDP and young people were arrested. 9.500 members of the HDP are currently in jail. 12 district offices were burned down until a policeman was caught. Many documents were destroyed during these attacks. The result: Regular congresses cannot be held anymore.

So far, the main negotiation for the co-chair of the HDP has been scheduled for May 2017. Unlike the case of visit-permissions, process-monitoring will be possible. It is explicitly desired because up to now an international accompaniment of the repression against the political opposition in Turkey is no longer a big issue in the public media.

Andrej Hunko informed that the Council of Europe would deal with the status of Turkey in April, although the majority wanted to do it immediately, but the board decided differently.

The lawyers asked therefore quite clearly what a country has to do more to be „put outside of the Council of Europe“. The democracy status has never been as bad as now in Turkey, they summed up the current situation. Martina said that the freezing of the EU-accession negotiations wasn’t an easy decision for the left, and Can Dündar has regarded this decision as wrong in general regarding the possibility for open dialogs. Ultimately, the Parliament's clear recommendation is only one of the two faces of the European institutions. The Commission and the European Council, the heads of governments, such as Angela Merkel, rather show us an almost uncritical approach to all developments in Turkey. The implications of this ongoing path into a dictatorship will affect Europe more than we suppose to now.

The political conflicts are already in Germany and are not only striking among the Turkish and Kurdish communities. Ultimately, the EU-Turkey-deal on the other hand looks like a media-based muzzle in the European-wide public, as Bernd Riexinger summed it up. And as it was discussed further, the proximity of the HDP to the PKK is brought into the media debate even though this was never verifiable.

Before the referendum - Hayır: The NO-Campaign

After the meeting with lawyers, we met in the Istanbul HDP office with the HDP's chairwoman in the National Assembly, Filiz Kerestecioğlu, and the vice-co-chair of the HDP, Sezal Temelli, as well as with the member of the International Department, Ayse Berktay, and others. In this discussion, the conclusion was that Turkey experiences the most severe days as a legally sanctioned dictatorship is conceivable following the referendum. Merkel is perceived as a hidden supporter of Erdoğan. This meeting also made clear that a large reserve of voters is sleeping in Germany, and many of them are represented - if we look to the last election results - from positions close to the AKP. A campaign that says NO to a further demolition of democracy would also have an enlightening effect in Germany.

Interestingly, our discussion pointed out that the ways in dictatorships and the dismantling of the state are always very clear combined with the dismantling of women's rights. That focus should also be highlighted in the European public by looking at the movements and supporters behind Le Pen and other movements of the right-wing populists and extremists.

Strictly speaking, all European citizens should learn the Turkish word for NO - hayır - quickly, because it is a NO to the abolition of democracy everywhere. Demirtaş said to Erdoğan following the election in June 2015: "We will not make you president!" And now the counter-discrimination is on for one and a half year. In order to dismantle a NO campaign before the referendum decrees are published in order to illegalize even the spaces of information for the opposition. Further Syrians are foreseen to be naturalized to be able to vote for Erdoğan, and majors in cities and villages are trapped in their regions as soon as the government knows that in this area too many opposing voices could occur - with this measure the government tries to prevent that ordinary electoral registers can be organized.

All of these experiences and information urged our delegation to call for international support and protection for a more fair referendum, following an observation of the current campaigns. We must reject attacks against the political opposition. This is also important for other, not to say for all countries in Europe as we also observe dangerous changes on a large scale.

Election observation; solidarity actions; visits to women's organizations; not only protection for deputies but also support and sponsorships for local politicians are necessary. A lot is to be done.

In the evening, we were able to go into deep conversations and we developed the idea of setting up a meeting/initiative which focusses on the feminist and religious perspectives as well as a debate on constitutional questions, based on the current conflicts in Turkey.

Trade unions take care for homeless and suspended people as well as for arrested employees

On Friday morning we met the general secretary of DISK, Arzu A. Çerkezoğlu, and the DISK general secretary and coordinator, Hakan Koçak, who clearly displayed that the immediate response to the coup attempt was to destroy the civil society and the trade unions. Over 100.000 persons worked in public services before and over 3.000 academics were dismissed.

The AKP and the right-wing MHP have submitted a constitutional suggestion with 18 paragraphs in 15 days. After the referendum, the country could be governed by decrees only. By changing the constitution, the president can simply ban trade unions. It was again argued that the referendum will not be fair and DISK will clearly follow the NO campaign. After the military coup in 1980 DISK was forbidden. At that time a Swedish municipal union had helped DISK in the trials and after twelve years the Turkish trade union DISK rose like Phoenix from the ashes. We already need international solidarity now, says Hakan Koçak.

Regarding the question of European support from the ETUC, they assured us that they are in contact already, also with other trade unions within Turkey like KESK and the union for medical professions. Many of the trade unions - and this is obviously more than diplomacy in the current situation - have not given a yes-declaration to the referendum. This is already a clear positioning in Turkey. A press conference on the referendum was held close to the Taksim-Square which was very well attended when a clear position for the NO voices in the referendum was given.

The DISK representatives reminded us that ten years ago there were similar aspirations for changing the constitution, but in a democratic and open way. At that time, the unions had also submitted their proposals, along with an expert of constitutional issues, who was dismissed just a few days ago.

Meanwhile trade unionists are also taking care of the homeless people in the south-east, where the inner districts of the cities are destroyed, and a lot of former employees of public services are imprisoned by now. However, even classic tariff struggles are being pushed forward, despite restrictions on the exceptional situation.

Media-interest in the visitors from Germany and from the European Parliament

Friday afternoon the small meeting room for press conferences in the HDP office in Istanbul was full of visitors, including the German TV-channel ZDF and many large Turkish daily newspapers and smaller agencies. We felt to be at the right place just in the right time. Although the visit to the co-chair-persons of the HDP had not been permitted, our opinion on the referendum was important now.

Bernd Riexinger, Martina Michels and Andrej Hunko gathered a lot to report about from those two days. Martina gave two interviews after the press conference and we had an afternoon with our former deputy in the European Parliament, Feleknas Uca, who herself faces charges as an HDP deputy from Diyarbakır.

Why is the EU silent?

Friday afternoon there was a meeting with the HDK, the Democratic Congress of Peoples, it was be held almost above the sky so we could look to the sea. This organization participates in the NO-campaign or better: it organizes its own NO campaign. The HDK brings together media workers, academics and people who organize health care in conflict areas.

The AKP's response to the failed coup was a civilian coup, and the expectation that friends all over Europe support the NO-campaign is high. "Help us in the emerging darkness, because we are honest, it’s a threat all over Europe," one of HDK's representatives concludes.

In many individual experiences, this conversation probably left the most lasting impressions, which triggers repression, anxiety and eroding solidarity. One of the suspended academics explained what these occupational prohibitions contain: Academics lose their health insurance, their pension entitlements and their special passport with travel visa. Horror came about through the personal experiences he told us about: "Only two days after my dismissal, colleagues and former friends started using my study room in the university." Even a journalist close to the government described these measures as "social death”.

The process of dismissals was also described as a process the government organized and as a process where parts of the higher education system cooperated and others didn’t. There were colleges and universities that handed over a list to the ministry with people who were to be dismissed and there were leaders of universities who didn’t. In the end those lists were the compass of the personnel layoffs, and the ministries were able to withdraw themselves. Now they could say, they didn’t make those decisions. On the lists, of course, were many of those who signed the "Academics for Peace” resolution in November 2015 - at first there were 1.128 and later it became 2.212 signatories.

1.125 of them live in Turkey, 400 of them lost already their jobs. In relation to previous coups in Turkey, 20 times more persons are affected now.

Another representative of the HDK explained how doctors and nurses have built health care in crisis situations, as in Cizre, together with the medical union and the chambers.

The Turkish government is directly involved in crimes committed by at least 14 people who have been denied access to medical care. Videos, photographs and other sources can give evidence on this terrible situation. The doctors were ultimately persecuted for bringing those cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In the meeting, the AFP article reached us which quoted Bernd Riexinger as follows: "Turkey on the way to a modern Sultanate, and it spread the visit outside also Turkey. Later in the afternoon we had a meeting with representatives of the TV-channel TV10, other NGOs, the KESK, which mainly represented the public service, and other projects. Finally we got the impression that the NO-campaign has quite a chance.