The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey moves to ban Kurdish-linked political party, drawing criticism from Biden administration

Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a human rights advocate and lawmaker from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, center, reacts after Turkey’s parliament stripped him of his seat, in Ankara on March 17. (AP)

ISTANBUL — Turkey's efforts to shut down one of the country's largest opposition parties drew a sharp rebuke from the Biden ­administration late Wednesday, which warned that the actions by Turkish authorities could "unduly subvert the will of Turkish voters," a State Department statement said.

The warning came after a top Turkish prosecutor filed a case with the Constitutional Court on Wednesday seeking to dissolve the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, after accusing it of links to a Kurdish militant group. Separately, Turkey’s parliament on Wednesday stripped Omer ­Faruk Gergerlioglu, a prominent HDP lawmaker and human rights advocate, of his seat.

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Taken together, the moves sharply accelerated a years-long government crackdown on Kurdish politicians while undermining recent pledges by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to strengthen human rights in Turkey, including freedom of expression, as his government seeks to mend tattered relations with the United States and other Western allies.

In the statement, Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, called the move against Gerger­lioglu “troubling” and said the United States was “monitoring” the push to dissolve the HDP — a move he said would “further undermine democracy in Turkey, and deny millions of Turkish citizens their chosen representation.”

Erdogan’s government has long accused the HDP of links to the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is classified as a terrorist entity by Turkey as well as the United States. Since 2016, Turkish authorities have jailed leaders of the HDP and removed or arrested dozens of party members who were elected to mayoral seats. Ultranationalist allies of Erdogan’s ruling party have recently stepped up calls to ban the HDP.

In a Twitter post Wednesday, Erdogan’s spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, said the “HDP’s senior leaders and spokespeople, through their words and deeds, have repeatedly and consistently proved that they are the PKK’s political wing.”

The HDP has denied acting on behalf of the PKK and tied the government crackdown to the party’s repeated success during ­recent elections, after decades in which a string of Kurdish parties struggled to gain political traction.

The party, the third largest in parliament, has peeled away voters from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party by advocating for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds, who make up roughly a fifth of Turkey’s population but struggle for recognition in a country that privileges Turkish ethnicity.

“Not having been able to overpower HDP ideologically, politically or at the ballot box, they are now aiming to eliminate HDP from democratic politics by means of the judiciary. Their aggressiveness originates from their deep fear,” the party said in a statement.

Human rights groups said the threatened ban posed significant peril to Turkey’s already battered democratic institutions. It also escalated tensions with the United States, a NATO ally, which has chastised Ankara over human rights issues several times since President Biden took office.

In a statement, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded Thursday to the criticism from Washington and from European officials. “We invite those who are unbalanced and attempt to interfere with internal affairs to respect the judicial processes carried out by independent courts,” the statement said.

In the case filed Wednesday against the HDP, Supreme Court Chief Public Prosecutor Bekir Sahin accused the party of “aiming to destroy and abolish the indivisible integrity of the State with its country and nation,” according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. In addition to seeking to dissolve the party, the indictment asked for a permanent political ban on more than 600 of the party’s members, in an apparent attempt to prevent the HDP from reconstituting itself under a different name.

The action against Gergerlioglu, who had served in parliament since 2018, came after he was ­convicted of “spreading terrorist propaganda” in relation to a 2016 social media post that commented on a news article about the PKK. Human Rights Watch called the conviction “a serious violation of his rights to freedom of opinion and expression” and said it was being used as a “pretext” to expel him from parliament.

After he was stripped of his seat Wednesday, Gergerlioglu refused to leave the chamber and spent the night there on a couch. “Our resistance continues,” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday. A physician and member of the parliament’s human rights commission, he had been a rare and prolific critic of Erdogan; he filed thousands of petitions calling on government ministries to investigate human rights abuses, he said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year.

“I work on dangerous issues. The justice minister and interior minister have likened me to a terrorist,” he said. “It is because I bring up cases of torture, abuse, rights violations — because I am a lawmaker who works intensely on these issues. I am a lawmaker who makes the ruling party incredibly uncomfortable.”

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