DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY: Bullet holes reveal where a human rights lawyer was shot in the head at the height of clashes in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir between Kurdish militants and security forces in 2015.
Much of the predominantly Kurdish city of more than a million people had to be rebuilt after street battles, in which Tahir Elci, the president of the local bar association, died near a famous mosque.
But the wounds continue to deepen as Turkey heads towards elections scheduled for June, from which the main pro-Kurdish party could be excluded.
Last year, prosecutors sought the banning of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – the third party in parliament – for alleged links to “terrorism”.
And just last week, a top prosecutor asked judges to strip the HDP of government funding, leaving the party’s election campaign in limbo.
“We have six million voters (in the country of 85 million) and we want a brave candidate to support the Kurds,” Orhan said. Ayazwho was elected mayor of Diyarbakir in 2019 but was never allowed to take office despite winning 72% of the vote.
More than 60 other HDP lawmakers suffered the same fate, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoganThe government accuses them of “terrorism” and appoints members of the ruling party to run towns and cities in their place.
Thousands of HDP officials and supporters are behind bars, including the party’s former co-leader Selahattin Demirtas, a committed orator who ran in jail against Erdogan in a 2016 election.
Since the 1990s, nearly a dozen Kurdish parties have either been banned or dissolved on pain of prosecution.
The HDP won 12% of the vote in the 2018 elections – a share that could be disenfranchised if the party is banned by June.
The government accuses the party of “organic” links with the PKKa militia whose decades-long insurgency has seen it designated a “terrorist” organization by Washington and the European Union.
The Turkish military has launched airstrikes against the PKK and its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq and Syria in response to a November bombing that killed six people in the heart of Istanbul.
“These terrorism charges serve to criminalize the HDP,” Ayaz said.
“The PKK is a popular movement born of the pressure suffered by the Kurds. It did not fall from the sky”, he added.
“We want a political solution. The military way is not a solution, but a democratic system is needed to silence the guns.”
The vote of the Kurds, often described as the largest people in the world without a state, was decisive in the last tight Turkish elections.
But Ayaz warned that the Kurds “will not support a party that does not support us”.
Erdogan’s Islamic-based AKP, in power since 2002, won 30% of the vote in Diyarbakir in 2018.
“The Kurds will not vote for their enemy,” warned a local businessman on condition of anonymity.
“But they can stay neutral, and that will be enough for Erdogan to win.”
Analyst Mesut Azizoglu said the government and opposition parties feared being too closely associated with the Kurds ahead of the vote.
“The government – all governments from the beginning of the republic until now – is afraid of the Kurds and all their policies are based on this fear,” said the chairman of the think tank the Tiger Center for Social Research (Ditam ).
“Our message is: don’t be afraid, we don’t want to separate from Turkey,” said Azizoglu, who is Kurdish.
“But the opposition leaders don’t want to be seen with the Kurds either, and their silence helps Erdogan,” he said.
Abdullah Zeytun34, a lawyer for the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, fears rising tensions during the election campaign.
“This government does not tolerate any criticism,” said Zeytun, who finds himself embroiled in more than a dozen politically related court cases.
Huseyin Beyoglu, the government-appointed acting mayor of Diyarbakir, or kayyum, disagrees.
“There has never been a Kurdish problem in Turkey, and certainly not in Diyarbakir”, he declared, welcoming “the competition between the parties”.
But Naci Sapan, seasoned columnist for the daily Tigris, is pessimistic.
“If we compare today to the 1980s, it’s worse on all fronts: economic, social, political,” he said.
“Today, journalist or citizen, we have no chance to defend our rights,” he said, pinning his hopes on young Kurds who will vote for the first time next year.
“They are the most affected by government policy, they should be mobilized. They are the drivers of change,” he said.

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