Turkey vote a 'test' for Kurds says veteran Kurdish politician

Luana SARMINI-BUONACCORSI
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Pro-Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk still hopes for peace but fears the consequences of next month's referendum

Jailed by the junta after Turkey's 1980 military coup and again after last year's failed putsch, veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk still hopes for peace but fears the consequences of next month's referendum.

In an interview with AFP, Turk said the referendum of April 16 on whether to approve an executive presidency was a "test" for the Kurds.

"Whether it is a 'yes' or a 'no' result, of course, it is important for Turkey... but especially regarding the Kurds, I see this as a test," the former mayor told AFP at his home in the city of Mardin.

Turk, 74, has spent five years of his life in prison including 20 months behind bars following the coup of 1980.

His most recent arrest was in November, a few days after he was removed as mayor of Mardin, one of the main cities in the southeast with a Kurdish majority.

A senior member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Turk was detained on charges of links to Kurdish militants, causing outrage across Turkey.

A court ordered his release on February 3 after supporters expressed concern over his health but he is still subject to a travel ban pending his trial.

In an editorial for the Hurriyet daily, mainstream columnist Ahmet Hakan described him as the "most peaceful, most opposed to violence, the wisest" politician within the Kurdish movement.

In a sign of Turk's popularity, he was helped out during his latest incarceration by rival politicians, including Deniz Baykal, former leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP).

- 'Intense pressure' -

Turk was just one of the 43,000 people arrested in the wake of the failed coup of July 15.

In the days following the putsch, the government imposed a state of emergency which has been extended twice and is likely to be renewed again when it expires on April 19.

And it has staged a major crackdown, which has seen more than 100,000 people suspected of links to the coup-plotters as well as to Kurdish militants detained, suspended or sacked from their public sector roles.

Among those arrested were 13 MPs from the HDP -- the third largest party in parliament -- including its co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, who remain in prison.

Mayors in over 80 municipalities in the southeast have been dismissed -- including the co-leaders of the largest Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir -- and replaced by government-appointed trustees.

Such actions did not surprise Turk.

"In fact, as Turkey was heading towards a referendum, we predicted there would be intense pressure against Kurdish politicians, against the Kurdish people, that politicians would be thrown in prison," he said with evident fatigue.

Whichever way the referendum goes is likely to spell further trouble for the Kurds, he said.

"If the 'yes' wins the referendum, believing their policies are right, there will be more repressive thinking, but if the 'no' prevails, we could witness a policy making democratic forces 'pay the price', starting with the Kurds."

- 'Peace the only way' -

Since 1984, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state in its fight for greater rights and autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Over 40,000 have been killed during the insurgency.

Violence renewed in the summer of 2015 after the collapse of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire, with Ankara vowing to eradicate the PKK.

Turkey has since been hit by a wave of attacks, many claimed by Kurdish separatists, with the military launching a vast "anti-terror" operation in the southeast earlier this month.

Many cities have been placed under strict curfew.

Turk urged a return to the peace process: "At the end of the day, there is no other way but peace, there is no other choice but peace."

But he cautioned against being naive about a hardline government.

"This period is not easy, we must not be daydreamers. Because today's mentality is to... silence Kurds, to asphyxiate them."

Waiting for such policies to change would be "unrealistic", he said.

"But we hope that when they see (these policies) are ineffective, a new debate and a new dialogue will begin, and we will act together."