The arrest of nine members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on November 4th, 2016 marked the beginning of a systematic campaign to force the pro-Kurdish political movement out of national politics in Turkey after its unprecedented success in the June 2015 parliamentary elections dealt the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) its first electoral setback since coming to power in 2002.
Six years later, the AKP government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has only doubled down on this repressive campaign. With critical elections approaching in 2023, the status of pro-Kurdish parliamentary politics in Turkey is precarious.
Three of the HDP MPs jailed on November 4th, 2016 remain in prison. Among them is former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, whose continued detention violates a legally binding European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling requiring his release.
Two of the 67 HDP MPs elected in 2018 are currently in prison. One HDP MP elected in 2018 and arrested during the current parliamentary term has been released from prison without being reinstated to office, and one has been released and reinstated.
Every HDP MP who remains in office is currently at risk of losing his or her parliamentary immunity—a well-documented first step towards removal and arbitrary detention on politicized terror charges.
An ongoing closure case is likely to shut the party down for good before the 2023 elections—leaving millions of predominantly Kurdish citizens of Turkey without the opportunity to vote for a party that represents them.
This brief provides an overview of the repressive measures used against pro-Kurdish parliamentary politics, the status of the HDP in parliament today, and likely near-term outcomes for the party.
Repressive Measures Used Against Pro-Kurdish Parliamentary Politics
Politicized Terrorism Cases
At both the parliamentary level and the local level, the government of Turkey’s weapon of choice against pro-Kurdish politics is the systematic use of politicized accusations of terrorism against elected officials. These are made possible draconian counter-terror laws that have been criticized by rights organizations both for their structure as written and for their application in practice.
Terror charges against HDP MPs are overwhelmingly based on non-violent conduct integral to the work of an elected official: speeches, written statements, and attendance at non-violent public gatherings, including press conferences and even funerals.
Lifting of Parliamentary Immunities and Removal from Parliament
In order to enable the criminalization of political activities carried out by HDP MPs in this way, the government of Turkey regularly strips these MPs of their parliamentary immunity.
This practice has been criticized by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and found to be a violation of the right to freedom of expression by the ECtHR.
Once an MP has lost his or her immunity, criminal cases based on political speech can be used as grounds to remove that MP from parliament.
When this occurs, the seat remains empty: voters cannot elect a replacement and are thus deprived of the elected representation to which they are entitled for the remainder of the parliamentary term.
Politicized terrorism cases against HDP MPs regularly lead to their imprisonment.
The United Nations defines detentions as arbitrary “when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights or freedoms guaranteed by articles 7, 13, 14, 18, 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, insofar as States parties are concerned, by articles 12, 18, 19, 21, 22, 25, 26 and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Because these cases target elected officials for political speech and other non-violent political activity carried out in their capacity as elected officials, they represent fairly clear-cut cases of deprivation of liberty as a result of the exercise of rights and freedoms guaranteed by Articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 21 (right to take part in government) of the UDHR and Articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 25 (right to vote and be elected) of the ICCPR specifically.
The Status of the HDP Today
Four HDP MPs Removed, Imprisoned, or Both
Out of the 67 HDP MPs elected to the 27th Parliament (June 2018-present), four MPs representing three provinces have been arrested, removed from office, or both arrested and removed from office.
- Leyla Guven, MP for Hakkari, was removed from office on June 4, 2020 and arrested the next day. She was released days later, but was arrested again in December 2020 after being sentenced to over 20 years in prison on terrorism charges related her political speeches and activities, including opposition to Turkish military intervention in Syria. In November 2021, she was sentenced to an additional five years in prison on terrorism charges for saying “The call for peace mentioned by Mr. Öcalan is very important. Stop the isolation of Öcalan and ensure his well-being and safety. Let peace come to the Middle East.” In October 2022, she was sentenced to an additional eleven years in prison on terrorism charges related to other speeches. Guven remains in prison.
- Musa Farisogullari, MP for Diyarbakir, was removed from office on June 4, 2020 and arrested the next day. He had been convicted of terror offenses on the grounds that he had attended the funerals of two PKK members and visited the family of another. Farisogullari was released from prison in March 2022. He has not been reinstated as an MP.
- Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, MP for Kocaeli, was removed from office in March 2021 and arrested in April 2021. His removal and arrest were based on a 2018 terrorism case in which he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for a Tweet in support of peace negotiations between the government of Turkey and the PKK. Gergerlioglu was released from prison and reinstated as an MP in July 2021. This occurred after Turkey’s Constitutional Court found that his rights had been violated by his removal. He is currently serving in office.
- Semra Guzel, MP for Diyarbakir, was stripped of her parliamentary immunity in March 2022 and arrested in September 2022. She was reportedly subjected to cruel and degrading treatment in detention. Guzel has not yet been convicted of any crime. She has been charged with terrorism on the grounds that she visited her former fiance, a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla, at a PKK camp while peace talks between the group and the government of Turkey were taking place and a ceasefire was in force. Many civilians, including political delegations involved in the talks and journalists reporting on them, visited PKK camps during the same time period. Guzel is currently in prison.
Every Remaining HDP MP At Risk
Every remaining HDP member of parliament currently faces at least one investigation that could trigger the removal of his or her parliamentary immunity. This is a well-documented first step towards removal from office and imprisonment.
With Erdogan’s government seeking to drum up nationalist support and remove competent opposition leaders from the playing field in the run-up to elections, it is likely that more HDP MPs will be stripped of their immunities, removed from office, and jailed in the near future.
Closure Case Active
A legal case intended to shut down the HDP and ban more than 400 of its leading members from political activity is currently making its way through Turkey’s Constitutional Court. It is all but certain that the party will be closed prior to the 2023 elections.
Although the pro-Kurdish political movement has traditionally been successful in reorganizing itself in order to circumvent party closures, this resilience should not be seen as a reason to dismiss the impact of the closure case.
New changes to Turkey’s electoral laws will likely make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the HDP to regroup in time if it is closed in the coming months. The political ban included in the case is the broadest such ban to have ever been applied to a pro-Kurdish party. It would bar the majority of the individuals who have served as prominent elected officials representing the HDP in recent years from political activity entirely, narrowing the field of those who could serve as elected officials and internal party officials in a new pro-Kurdish party.
What happens next?
If current trends continue, the more than five million predominantly Kurdish citizens of Turkey who consistently support the HDP are at severe risk of complete exclusion from national politics for the next five years or more.
Current and former HDP elected officials are at severe risk of further rights violations, including violations of their freedom of expression, violations of their right to participate in government, arbitrary detention, politicized and unfair trials, and cruel and degrading treatment in custody.
Polls show that the HDP’s support base has not diminished as a result of repression to date. It is therefore unlikely that intensified repressive measures will impact this constituency’s interest in collective Kurdish political, civil and cultural rights.
These measures are, however, relatively likely to convince this constituency that democratic politics is an ineffective means by which to further these goals. By imposing costs on peaceful pro-Kurdish political participation equivalent to the costs of armed activity (as the use of counter-terrorism frameworks against civilian politics inherently does) and eliminating the benefits of such political participation, the government of Turkey is likely to increase support for armed Kurdish groups, driving instability and prolonging conflict.
Repressive measures tested against the HDP are also likely to be applied to mainstream Turkish opposition targets in the near future.
Here, it is important to note that the campaign against the HDP began in response to the HDP’s electoral successes in the June 2015 elections, which denied Erdogan’s government a majority in parliament for the first time ever. The stakes in 2023 are even higher: Erdogan and the AKP could potentially lose power to an opposition bloc led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) outright.
It is thus reasonable to expect that Erdogan’s reaction to an opposition victory could involve the use of anti-democratic strategies developed to crush the HDP, such as the arbitrary arrests of key elected leaders on national security grounds and the resulting disenfranchisement of entire constituencies that supported successful opposition candidates, against a new and expanded list of political targets.
(Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)