As Turkey entered the new presidential system in the June 2018 elections, with sweeping new powers granted to its re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the repression of the opposition continued, now without the pretext of the State of Emergency that officially ended on July 18 this year. Shortly after that, I interviewed one of the vocal critics of Erdogan’s regime, Onur Hamzaoglu, co-spokesperson of the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK) and an internationally known academic. Hamzaoglu was released from five months of pre-trial detention at a court hearing in Ankara on July 19, 2018. He had been arrested in February, 2018, for signing a press-release statement condemning the Operation Olive Branch carried out by the Turkish government in Afrin, northwest Syria. In March, the Turkish government and its Free Syrian Army allies seized the town from the Kurdish YPG forces under the pretext of “neutralizing” terrorists. Subsequently, Turkey established its own regime in Afrin, administered by its police and military forces and Syrian groups equipped and armed by it. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Turkish government allowed its own forces and Syrian armed groups to commit serious violations against civilians, including torture, forced disappearances and looting. Most recently, it was revealed that Turkish forces in Afrin have been operating a human trafficking ring.
Hamzaoglu stood trial together with other HDP- and HDK-affiliated individuals, accused of “promotion of enmity among the population” and “propaganda for a terror organization [PKK],” in what is considered to be an action of intimidation against the pro-Kurdish opposition. The court ordered the release of Hamzaoglu and of Fadime Çelebi, deputy chair of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), who had also spent more than five months in pre-trial detention. The next hearing was scheduled for January 19, 2019.
The interview has been translated and edited for clarity.
Anna: You were released from jail in July after spending more than 5 months there. Can you tell about your experience in Turkey’s justice system?
Onur Hamzaoglu: Our crime was a press release. It consisted of approximately 322 words, 21 sentences and 7 paragraphs. The main objective of the statement was to emphasize that the operation carried out in Afrin [by the Turkish government] could lead to deaths, injuries and displacement. This is essentially a text with a demand for peace. Nine organizations signed it. Sixteen people represented these organizations. Ankara’s anti-terror police determined that this statement constituted a crime, that it led people to hatred and made propaganda for the terrorist organization [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK]. The police wrote what crime was committed and then sent their report to the chief prosecutor. The prosecutor decided to detain 12 out of 16 signatories and search their homes. On the morning of February 9th, a team of policemen in balaclavas and body armor came to our doors and raided our houses, surrounding the neighborhood and waking everyone up. Eight out of the 12 people whose houses were raided were taken into custody that morning. One person [out of these 8] was questioned in Kadikoy and released. Seven others were taken to Ankara. Five days later another friend went to a police station by himself. He was questioned without being arrested. We stayed in custody for 8 days, after which 5 people were released, while I and another person remained in detention. A little later two other people were questioned by the prosecutor and both were freed. As you see, it was the same statement, but some people were released and others arrested. This shows how arbitrary the process is.
Our crime was the press release. Normally, the police takes any instrument of crime there is and keeps it as evidence. When I went to the court [on July 19], our statement was still on the website, which means that the police had not censored the statement. Basically, you can understand what has happened to the justice system through this example. The boundaries are set by the police and copied by the judiciary. When my home was searched, they found no evidence that a crime had been carried out in the electronic materials. My class notes, column writings, foreign-language articles and my anti-war texts in the Evrensel daily column were shown as evidence. There were humor magazine covers among the evidence, a folder with photos from the election process. But these objects taken by the police as evidence had nothing to do with the accusation. The prosecution accepted the evidence exactly the way it was presented by the police. The Criminal Court accepts whatever comes to the court. The state of justice can be seen through what I have lived.
A: How did you fight this in court?
OH: I just made a speech [at the court hearing on July 19] so that it would be recorded in written history. I demanded neither acquittal nor release. I explained that AKP had used Afrin to improve its ratings. Very few people in Turkey knew Afrin. Only those who lived in the bordering region knew it. Relatives live on both sides of the border. Tens of thousands of people go to visit their relatives on the other side for holidays and funerals.
Most of the time, the official press releases and reality do not match. Those who objected to the state’s version of the truth were punished. Defending the truth, defending human life is our duty.
A: Where do you think the solution to the Kurdish question will come from, given the current state of affairs?
OH: The EU will continue supporting the AKP government as the war in Syria goes on because of its fear of refugees. The EU does not want them. Even in Germany this issue has created cracks in the coalition. Our government comes from a tradition of bargaining, they know well how to bargain but they do not know diplomacy. Seeing that the continuation of the war in Syria increases their power, the government is doing its best to continue this war. We need to consider this as the main issue. As advocates for peace, we must put Syria directly on our agenda. It is important for both humanitarian and political reasons.
Apart from that, the HDP’s passing the threshold in the latest elections prevented the AKP from having a parliamentary majority, as also happened in the elections of June 7, 2015. The AKP would not have had to make a deal with the MHP if the HDP had not passed the threshold.
We cannot expect a peace initiative from the government. We know that the decision to end the conflict can be finalized with a ceasefire, with an agreement. However, normalization is not possible unless the people make this decision. If the people in Turkey make a decision to pursue peace, I think Turkey will reach it soon. We experienced this in 2013. The war stopped.
With the Gezi protests, after so many years, ordinary people, workers, and those involved in in ecological struggles started fighting together against the government. Millions of people who previously knew about the Kurdish issue, who knew how people lived in the Southeast of Turkey only from the government’s statements, were finally able to feel empathy with the Kurdish people after the TV screens broadcast [the protests]. A threshold was crossed. At that time, even rank-and-file soldiers protested the deaths at soldiers’ funerals. We are in a position to fight for peace instead of waiting for it. If peace mothers [mothers protesting the killing of their sons by the state] and martyr mothers [“martyr” is the status given to Turkish military casualties] stand side by side, this problem will be solved. Hoping that peace will come from the government is an empty expectation. The war is feeding this government.
A: What makes the HDK different from other leftist organizations both in terms of its organizational form (e.g. compared to a party or block) and in terms of its goals and strategies?
OH: Worldwide, there are generally four stages in ending a civil war. Ceasefire, negotiation, agreement and normalization. Normalization is the stage in which people who used to live as neighbours start living again as neighbors. That is, those who have killed each other can live together without feeling hostile towards each other.
The HDK is an organization for a future like this. Turks, Kurds, Pomaks, Circassians, Laz, all religious groups, atheists, LGBTI individuals, that is, all those marginalized by the system, are brought together in the HDK. The HDK is a solidarity platform where workers, as the overarching identity, come together. I would especially like to add the following: if you are in Marxist politics for a long time, it is considered to be a weakness to analyse sub-identities [other than class]. Yet, people experience capitalist economic exploitation with their religious and ethnic identities. A construction worker is dying because the boss does not take safety measures. If you look who they [construction workers] are, they are Kurds. How do they identify themselves? They identify themselves not as workers but as Kurds. The HDK contains sub-identities together with the class identity; we need to unite women, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Gypsy, LGBTI. The HDK is the main platform for this: that’s why our work is so hard.
A: The HDK promotes radical democracy, including through neighbourhood councils. Is such a system possible in Turkey under the current circumstances given the oppressive nature of Erdogan’s government? How successful has the HDK been in promoting this goal of locally-based participation?
OH: Radical democracy is the goal of the HDP, not the HDK. We are not narrowing ourselves to radical democracy. We have as many socialist organizations as religious and identity ones. The two [socialist versus religious and identity organizations] have to be separate from each other. As for the local assemblies, since the 2017 [constitutional] referendum, the central parliament ceased to function as a legislative body. With the last elections on June 24, the new presidential system entered into force. In that respect, the parliament lost its legitimacy. Therefore there is no people’s parliament in Turkey. This can be said about both the content and function of the parliament. For that reason, the local assemblies proposed by the HDK have become vital. Assemblies can not be formed by command. In many localities, such as Kocaeli, for example, these councils were established to make visible the problems of average citizens, not limited by their political identity. The majority of assembly participants were ordinary citizens. We found that the most expensive bread in Turkey was in Kocaeli and we made the public aware of this. The people pressed their claim and the municipality had to take measures. Furthermore, Kocaeli is a city where there is almost no public transportation. It is our job to organize average citizens’ demands.
Today too, these councils can organize according to the local understanding of existing problems. They do not have to be HDK councils. We consider assemblies to be a means of solving problems in the locality. When we look at the election process in Turkey since 2011, it can be said that Turkey’s current state of affairs prevents establishing local councils. One could criticize us in this regard: “You’ve made the decision [to establish local councils], it’s been 7 years, you still have not implemented it.” However, under the current conditions in Turkey, this is not an fair criticism. The country has experienced an intense polarization in the election process. For that reason, the assemblies could not be established in some places or institutionalized in the places where they were established. But they can develop. At the least, this is an important experience and target for an egalitarian society that aspires to democracy, for all structures that aspire to socialism.
A: What do you think the Turkish opposition should do under the current circumstances?
OH: For me, the only way to fight fascism is to form a broad front. But it seems that there is no consensus on this issue. Everyone should be able to stay in their own organization, yet struggle in a common front. I hope that the presence of the HDK can provide for this. I myself am in the HDK as an individual. I have no political affiliation. I am part of the HDK alliance. I think that the current political environment is relatively advantageous for the leftist and socialist opposition. We should not be tied to our [political] egos.
A: The HDP claims to be a voice for all of the oppressed. Do you consider there to be a conflict between the national struggle for Kurdish self-determination and the working people’s struggle given the different classes within Kurdish population ?
OH: Working people are the majority of the total population of Turkey; this number is similar or even higher among the Kurds. As you know, the peace process was terminated on flimsy grounds. 94 of the 102 Kurdish municipalities have been transferred to kayyum [government trustees have replaced elected officials]. Kayyum concerns not only politics but also economy. When we look at these 94 towns, Kurdish capital owners, medium and large size merchants, who are depenendent on local authorities, detached themselves from the HDP during the 2017 [constitutional] referendum. In fact, this development has led to the rise of HDP’s class character: HDP is no longer an identity party.
This is an opportunity. The labor movement and the peace struggle will not succeed without merging. There is no chance of success one by one. The struggle must be carried out together. The HDK is a tool for the implementation of a merger in the public sphere.
A: The civil war in Turkish Kurdistan still continues, the people are dying. What is HDK’s position on this situation?
OH: In the social opposition, we aim to make it clear what the war means. Not only dead soldiers and guerrilla relatives, but we need to secure empathy of the entire society. The HDK actively claims this function. Normalization can’t be achieved unless people are willing to do this. In this respect, the HDK is a civil structure of the future.