Turkey detains 11 opposition lawmakers in latest crackdown as EU sounds alarm

Turkey detains 11 opposition lawmakers in latest crackdown as EU sounds alarm
By bne IntelliNews November 4, 2016

Turkish police have detained 11 lawmakers, including the two co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), in the early hours of November 4 in a crackdown that threatens to crush one of the country’s main opposition parties.

The move, which authorities say is part of ongoing terror-related investigations, is just the latest government crackdown following the failed July 15 coup attempt and will likely earn Ankara more criticism abroad, damaging the already strained relations with the West. 

HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag and nine more lawmakers were detained shortly after midnight over their refusal to give testimony in an ongoing counter-terrorism investigation, the ministry of justice said on November 4. HDP lawmakers are accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. Prosecutors issued detention warrants for 13 lawmakers, but two of them are abroad at present.

“Extremely worried for arrest of Demirtas and other MPs. In contact with authorities. Called EU ambassadors meeting in Ankara,” EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweeted on November 4. “Detention of HDP leaders a blow to pluralism & democracy,” European Parliament’s President Martin Schulz tweeted.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government officials have repeatedly called for the prosecution of HDP lawmakers on terrorism-related charges. In June, opposition lawmakers were summoned for questioning shortly after the parliament voted to lift the immunity of lawmakers from prosecution. HDP lawmakers, however, refused to testify before prosecutors.

The government sees the HPD as the political arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in mid-1980s. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people. Violence in the country’s southeast have flared and clashes between security forces and the PKK have intensified after the collapse of a two-year ceasefire last year.

The government refuses to return to the negotiating table with the PKK. Instead, it has widened its crackdown on the HDP using the extraordinary powers granted by the state of emergency that was declared after the July coup attempt. Dozens of elected mayors have been detained on terrorism charges in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region and more than 20 Kurdish news outlets have been shut down.

Shortly after the detentions, a car bomb rocked Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s southeast. PKK is responsible for the attack, the governor of the city said in a statement. Two policeman and six civilians were killed and more than 30 others wounded in the car bomb attack that struck an area near a police station. 

Access to social media blocked

Shortly after the arrests, users in Turkey started experiencing difficulties in accessing social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, YouTube as well as messaging service WhatsApp. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed the problems, saying that the internet restrictions are placed as “security” measures. He did not say when the restrictions would be removed.

In the wake of the coup attempt, tens of thousands of people, including soldiers, policemen, judges, prosecutors, academics, and teachers, have been dismissed from post over their alleged link to the US-based Fethullah Gulen, who the government says masterminded the botched putsch.

Opposition’s reaction

It is still unclear how the HDP or the main opposition party CHP will respond to the latest wave of detentions. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the centre-left CHP, condemned the operation. “A common stand against terror is needed, but if elected deputies are arrested, there will be no peace in the country,” Kilicdaroglu said. Erdogan, who spoke at a conference in Istanbul on November 4, did not comment on the latest development.

The most crucial point is the HDP’s reaction. If it calls for street protests, this will increase tensions in the already restive southeast, which has seen an escalation of violence between security forces and militants of the PKK following the collapse of a two-year ceasefire last year.

It is also important to see the reaction of Turkey’s key West allies - the US and the EU.  The detentions come at a time when Turkey has already come under increased pressure from the West about the post-coup purges. Brussels and Washington criticise the sweeping crackdown following the failed coup attempt but Ankara defends the measures it takes, arguing that the West fails to understand the threats posed by the PKK and supporters of Gulen.

The government has so far shrugged off criticism from its Western partners. Turkey would not be taught lessons by Europe, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on November 2 in response to remarks by the European Parliament President Martin Schulz following the detention of 15 executives and writers of the country’s leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.

“The detention of Cumhuriyet staff is yet another red-line crossed against freedom of expression in Turkey,” Schulz tweeted on October 31. “We don’t care about your red-lines. The people draw the red-lines in this country”, Yildirim scolded.

Lira tumbles, stocks fall

Turkish markets took a fresh battering: the lira hit a new record low of 3.1322 against the dollar, while the main stock exchange index, BIST-100, dropped 1.65% as of 11:50am Istanbul time. The yield on the 10-year bonds rose to 10.32%.

Turkish assets have been under pressure over the past few weeks as investors fear of a renewed political uncertainty in the run up to a referendum next year on which Turks will decide whether the country should shift to a presidential system. Rising geopolitical risks stemming from the ongoing conflicts in neighbouring Iraq and Syria, along with rising expectations of a rate hike by the US Fed by the end of the year, are also weighing on confidence.

Heightened tensions in domestic politics and the volatility in the markets are taking place at a time when the Turkey’s $720bn economy is heading towards a slowdown. Growth in Turkey is expected to be below potential over the next couple of years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in a recent report. “This year's slower growth reflects adverse external shocks, alongside the negative impact of the credit slowdown, real effective exchange rate appreciation, and weakness in consumer and investor confidence amidst heightened political uncertainty.” the IMF said.