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Turkey: Treatment of Kurds

Volume 658: debated on Wednesday 10 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the treatment of Kurds in Turkey.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to speak on this matter. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurds in Turkey, I wanted to secure this debate to highlight what I believe is a worsening situation for Kurds in Turkey.

On 31 March, my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and I were meant to travel to Turkey to meet Leyla Güven and observe the local elections taking place in Turkey. Unfortunately, the Government announced extra sitting days due to Brexit—something that I suspect even the Government could not help at that time—and we had to cancel the trip. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate and I did travel down to Newport to meet Imam Sis. Imam is a brave Kurdish activist from Newport who, 114 days ago, embarked on an indefinite hunger strike. Two weeks ago, when we met him, the hunger strike was taking its toll, but although his body was giving way, his determination in the cause of Kurdish freedom was not.

As my hon. Friend said, I visited Imam Sis in Newport with him, and what struck me most was Imam’s plea for the world not to look on in silence at the human rights abuses against the Kurds in Turkey. Deciding to go on an indefinite hunger strike for one’s political cause is one of the hardest decisions and most drastic peaceful political actions that one can take, so does my hon. Friend agree that this Parliament and this Government must not stay silent about human rights abuses against Kurds while British citizens are risking their lives for the Kurdish political cause?

I totally agree that we must speak up, and I hope that we will get good responses from the Front Bench later.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate. It is good to see this issue being discussed in this Chamber. I support the Kurds and their right to self-determination—their right to be a nation and form their own Government. Alongside that, we have Turkey, which is an abuser of human rights and a suppressor of civil rights. Religious and ethnic groups are having their beliefs restricted; new churches are being prevented from being built. Is it not time that the free world, the west, the Minister, this Government and we ourselves stood alongside the Kurds and backed their wish for democracy and freedom—indeed, for liberty itself?

I totally agree. Of course, historically, Britain was part of drawing the lines on maps that exterminated a Kurdish nation. We therefore have a responsibility to ensure that we are adding our voice in support of correcting an historical wrong in terms of the map, but also recognising the role that the Kurds have played in allying with us in numerous battles and particularly the latest one, against ISIS.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and I would like to echo the comment that he has just made. It is a fact that the west and the wider world have let down the Kurdish people, particularly after the first world war and again when we have seen them help the rest of the world—most recently in Syria against ISIS. We are in danger of once again turning our backs on the Kurds, but that must not happen.

I totally agree. I should of course mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) is the local Member for Imam Sis. She has been an advocate for his struggle, but cannot be here today because of the death of her agent last week; she is at his funeral. She is following this debate with great interest.

When I was with Imam, I asked him to write down the key demands that he wanted to be raised in Parliament, so I am here today to put Imam’s voice in Hansard as well as to get a response. He wrote to me, saying:

“The hunger strikers are demanding that Turkey ends the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan. Namely, they are demanding that Öcalan be returned access to his lawyers and family. In not doing this Turkey is breaking international law and its own laws. The hunger strikers are also asking that the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture re-open its investigation into the conditions on İmralı Island where Öcalan is being held.”

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am sure he will agree that we have noticed a pattern with Turkey: when there is international attention, Abdullah Öcalan gets something, such as a brief meeting with, say, his lawyer or his brother; then the attention of the world retreats and nothing further happens. It is essential that we keep the pressure on and that we call on the Government to ensure that the response of the Turkish Government is not just a superficial and tokenistic one.

I totally agree. Since 2015, little if any access has been granted to Abdullah Öcalan, and it is only because some of the hunger strikes and campaigning that brief interventions have been allowed for relatives to make sure that he is still alive. He has been allowed no access to the external world and his lawyer has had no access in that time.

Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, praise the trade union movement in the UK for highlighting this issue as part of the Freedom for Öcalan campaign? Is he, like me, concerned that 700 appeals have been launched on behalf of Mr Öcalan but that, as he has said, lawyers are not getting access to him?

I totally agree; this last year just gone, the Durham Miners’ Gala had an international theme of Freedom for Öcalan. Like many other struggles that we have had in the past, it shows that the trade union movement is stepping up to fight for what is just and right.

For the benefit of those watching proceedings who may not be aware of Abdullah Öcalan, he is the Kurdish leader and political philosopher who is currently imprisoned in Turkey. Last Thursday was his 70th birthday, but for 20 years of his life he has been held in prison by the Turkish authorities. Öcalan was abducted in February 1999 from Nairobi, Kenya, where he was in exile, in an international clandestine operation involving Turkish intelligence agencies. He was transported to the island prison, where he has been kept in harsh solitary confinement. He has been forbidden to contact his lawyer since 2011—I met his lawyer a month ago—and he has only been granted access to anyone twice since 2015. The conditions in which he is held violate not only Turkish law, but the European convention on human rights, which Turkey is obliged to follow as a member of the Council of Europe.

To protest these unlawful conditions, the then imprisoned MP for the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, Leyla Güven, began an indefinite hunger strike on 7 November. Leyla was imprisoned by the Turkish authorities following her critical remark on the Government’s bombing of Afrin in northern Syria, which she rightly described with detestation. She was a sitting MP, thrown in prison for doing her job and holding the Government to account. She was released 80 days later, but now, after almost 140 days, she is nearing death, suffering from nausea, fever, severe headaches, insomnia and unstable blood pressure. We have seen a set of elections in Turkey that are beyond what anyone could call fair and free, particularly in some of the Kurdish regions.

Leyla in Turkey and Imam here in the UK are not alone in their hunger strike. Since the end of last year, they have been joined by 8,000 political prisoners from across Turkey, and numerous activists in Europe, north America, the middle east have all joined Ms Güven in declaring indefinite hunger strikes. Many hunger strikers are now suffering from serious health problems, but refuse medical treatment until the isolation of Öcalan is lifted.

We are joined in the Public Gallery by three hunger strikers who are based here in London. If they will excuse my pronunciation—I will probably get it wrong—they are Ali Poyraz, Nahide Zengin, and Mehmet Sait Yılmaz, who are on their 27th day of hunger strike. It is awful to find oneself in the position where that is the only recourse to political voice, but I welcome them to Parliament today and I know that many MPs in this place, while not joining them in their methods, will be sympathetic and support their demands.

The human rights situation in Turkey has been progressively deteriorating since the breakdown of talks for the peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state in 2015, at which point the Turkish state began to engage in a policy of brutal oppression of the Kurdish population, imposing harsh 24-hour curfews in the south-eastern Kurdish region and committing countless human rights abuses—all this after Öcalan had spurned violence in favour of peaceful, political resolution. In Britain, we know that converting a violent protest to a peaceful one is not an easy road; it requires good faith and perseverance on all sides. The fact is that Turkey’s continued repression of Öcalan and the Kurds destroys any potential for a peaceful resolution for them and Turkey as a whole.

The situation was greatly exacerbated by the state of emergency that followed the failed coup in 2016, under which political opposition and trade union activity has largely been banned, and democratically elected politicians, Members of Parliament and members of the judiciary have been removed from office on the grounds of suspected affiliation to opposition activity. They have all been replaced with President Erdoğan’s AKP puppets.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has visited the notorious island where Öcalan is held, İmralı, and other political prisoners seven times since 1999. Very few of the improvements that it has called for have ever been implemented. The CPT’s last visit to the island was in 2016, and Turkey gave permission for the publication of its report only in 2018, two years later. The hunger strikers are demanding that the CPT be allowed to revisit İmralı island prison immediately and investigate the conditions of the prisoners there, to see if any of the improvements have been made.

I have been disappointed by the reaction to the growing concern. In January, the Council of Europe passed a resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in Turkey and the condition of the hunger strikers, as well as calling Turkey to authorise the immediate publication of the CPT’s reports. However, the resolution has been insufficient in putting pressure on Turkey to change its ways. The hunger strikers are calling for all possible pressure to be put on Turkey to end the isolation of Öcalan before the situation escalates and there are mass casualties.

What recent discussions has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had—I am aware that the Minister covering for this debate is not the Minister for the middle east—with counterparts in Turkey on the treatment of Kurdish prisoners in Turkey and in particular on the conditions on İmralı island. Will he seek assurances from the Turkish authorities that Öcalan will be granted access to his lawyer in compliance with Turkish and international law? Will he, as a matter of urgency, seek to have the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reopen its investigation into İmralı island? Will the Government support the Welsh Assembly’s referral to the CPT on this matter, so that it has the backing of the whole of the British state? Will we ensure that our member of the CPT raises this issue in those committee meetings? Turkey is a NATO ally, but we must not allow a friendship to stop us demanding fair and just treatment of all citizens.

In Northern Ireland and other parts of the world, we have seen that we achieve lasting peace only if political leaders on all sides are given legitimacy, respect and a seat at the table to forge peace. The British Government must stand with the Kurdish people—as I have mentioned, we have an historic duty, as well as a current humanitarian and moral duty to do so—to seek the peace that they desperately deserve.

May I first say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their contributions? The Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), cannot be here today and sends his apologies. The fact that I am speaking about Turkey is not a further extension of my duties, but it is a great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to all the points that have been raised; if I fail to do so, I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will forgive me, and I will respond in writing afterwards.

We are obviously aware of Imam Sis’s hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which Abdullah Öcalan is being held and related issues. I will go into more detail about the hunger strike later, because it has been raised by a number of hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown also mentioned election outcomes. We note the preliminary conclusions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, which monitored Turkey’s local elections, including wins for the HDP in a number of major cities in the south-east. On the one hand, its conclusions welcome the impressive turnout of 84%, calling it a

“sign of healthy democratic interest and awareness.”

However, we also note the deep concerns that were raised about the fairness of the campaigning environment, particularly in relation to the media coverage. We will encourage the Turkish authorities to engage with the recommendations of the full report, which is due in July. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recounts are ongoing in Istanbul, and the governing AKP has appealed to the Supreme Electoral Council for a full recount. We must of course await the decision of that council, which may adjudicate on the matter as soon as 13 April. Meanwhile, the CHP candidate for Ankara received his certificate of election from the council on Monday.

I will say a bit more about broader relations with Turkey. It was fair of the hon. Gentleman to recognise in his contribution that Turkey is a vital partner for the UK. Turkey is a long-term member of NATO; it sits on NATO’s southern border, on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face. We work together to counter terrorism, build our prosperity and pursue stability in our neighbourhood, recognising that a lot of these issues are now of global importance. We should also acknowledge that Turkey is hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, at considerable cost.

Of the approximately 83 million Turkish citizens, some 15 million to 18 million are of Kurdish origin. They live in all parts of Turkey, from the traditional Kurdish heartlands of the south-east to the larger cities in the west, with perhaps 3 million in Istanbul alone. There are many Kurds in the Turkish diaspora, including here in the UK, where they make a positive contribution, not just to the UK economy but culturally. I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who is no longer in his place, recognises the importance of the Turkish diaspora to that part of north London.

It is important not to generalise when we talk about “the Kurds” or their plight. They are a diverse section of society, with a range of political affiliations, lifestyles and outlooks. As Members will be aware, there are also large Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran and Syria, countries that are all of great strategic importance to the UK. Our approach to the issue of the Kurds in Turkey needs to reflect aspects of that wider context.

We should also not generalise when we talk about the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey. I absolutely note the concerns that have been expressed in this debate about the policies of the current Turkish Government towards Kurds, and I will try to address some of the issues that have been raised. It is worth remembering that a great many people of Kurdish origin have voted for, and continue to vote for, the AKP Government. Indeed, some have served in it—two of Turkey’s most recent Deputy Prime Ministers were of Kurdish origin. All Turks, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, enjoy the same rights under the Turkish constitution, and from 2003 onwards—especially following the 2009 Kurdish opening policy—the AKP did much to end the historical restrictions on the free expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey.

The Turkish Government have always said that their quarrel is not with the Kurds as a whole, but with the specific terrorist groups that threaten the Turkish state. I appreciate that this matter is open to some dispute, both within Turkey and among those in the UK who have an interest in Turkish issues. However, the Turkish state has been locked in a bitter conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the PKK—since the 1980s. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and throughout much of the world.

Does the Minister recognise that the latest court ruling in Belgium about the PKK’s proscribed status in European law at least opens up a discussion about whether it is still an active terrorist group or has transitioned to more peaceful means?

I understand that. It is worth pointing out that the proscription of organisations is always quite fluid and constantly under review—I see that in my day-to-day brief as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, as well as in the middle east and north Africa.

That tragic conflict has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and the displacement of millions of people in south-east Turkey. An end to that conflict is possible. Between 2013 and 2015, the Turkish Government and the PKK engaged in fruitful negotiations to end it, and a ceasefire was in place for much of that time. Sadly, that ceasefire broke down in July 2015. Since then, according to the International Crisis Group, more than 4,000 people have been killed. That includes more than 400 civilians and more than 1,000 members of the Turkish security forces. I say to hon. Members who have a strong interest in this matter, not least because of the diaspora in their constituencies, that the UK very much hopes that those negotiations can reopen to bring an end to the conflict and prevent further deaths. For that to happen, the PKK must end its campaign of terror, and we urge it to do so.

I note that there are Members from across the House in the Chamber today. There are two Members from Plaid Cymru: the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake)—I am sure I have mispronounced both constituencies.

In fact, there are no other English Members here at all. We have the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from Northern Ireland and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for the Scottish National party. All have raised the serious situation of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Naturally, we condemn the PKK’s acts of violence, just as we condemn all forms of terrorism, but we also naturally expect Turkey to respect properly its international obligations regarding the treatments of all prisoners. We are aware that the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture reported on Mr Öcalan’s prison conditions as recently as March 2018. In January, British embassy officials discussed his case, as well as that of hunger-striking prisoners, with Turkish officials.

Hon. Members have raised the issue of hunger strikes by prisoners, including by members of the HDP. Although it is of course distressing to witness any hunger strike—we see evidence of them closer to home, in Newport and elsewhere—the decision to embark on one is a matter for the individual concerned. As I said, we expect Turkey to respect its international obligations with regard to prison conditions, including by ensuring access to appropriate medical treatment.

A number of HDP MPs have been arrested on the basis of their alleged links to the PKK. If those links are proven to be accurate, we urge the HDP to distance itself entirely from the PKK and any terrorist activity. However, we have registered our concern with the Turkish authorities about the very large number of relatively recent detentions, including that of the HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtaş. Our embassy in Ankara, alongside other diplomatic missions, has attempted to observe Mr Demirtaş’s trial hearings. Unfortunately, we have sometimes been prevented from doing so. We urge the Turkish authorities to allow diplomatic missions to observe such trials so that we can understand the evidence on which the charges are based.

Hon. Members raised concerns about the replacement of large numbers of HDP mayors in the south-east of Turkey with state-appointed trustees. President Erdoğan has suggested that the same measures may be taken following last month’s local elections. That decision was taken on the basis that those mayors and their municipalities were allegedly channelling funding and political support to the PKK. Again, if that is the case, we should condemn it unreservedly, but we also expect the Turkish state to undertake any legal processes against locally elected representatives fairly, transparently and with full respect for international law and the rule of law. That is vital not just for the long-term health of Turkish democracy, but increasingly for Turkey’s international reputation.

As hon. Members will know, in 2016 there was an attempt to overthrow the Turkish Government by force. Obviously, we are thankful that the attempt failed, but many innocent civilians were killed. I am proud that the UK Government stood alongside our Turkish allies on that night. The Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Turkey as soon as he could to show solidarity. I also accept that aspects of the trauma have allowed more space for other activity. However, the trauma of the attempted coup is still fresh in the Turkish consciousness.

Does the Minister feel personally comfortable that the PKK is aligned with terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda on the proscribed list?

As the right hon. Lady will be aware, obviously we have a proscription in place for good reason, but it is not a hit list of acceptability from one organisation to another. Until such time as the PKK denounces violence, it must recognise that it will be regarded as a proscribed organisation in many parts of the world. I would like to see those people who have been actively engaged denounce violence to ensure that they are no longer proscribed and can play a proper and full part in the democratic process. The list does not run from A to Z according to some level of acceptability; an organisation is either proscribed or it is not. One might objectively sit back and think, “Certain organisations are more dangerous to our interests than others.” None the less, it is right that rules for proscription are in place.

The Turkish Government have a right and a responsibility to act against the perpetrators of any coup attempt and all who have committed or are planning terrorist acts. However, it is also vital that any and all measures taken are proportionate and in line with Turkey’s democratic principles and freely given human rights obligations. We shall continue to express our concern to Turkey where we believe that is not the case. This includes a number of individual cases, including that of a former Amnesty director, Taner Kılıç, who was released on bail last year. We look forward to the judicial reforms that Turkey’s reform action group is considering and hope they will make a genuine difference to other cases of concern, including those of the civil society patron, Osman Kavala.

We remain concerned at the sheer scale of the response, including the number of civil servants who have been summarily dismissed from their jobs, and especially the number of journalists who have been detained. We believe that a free press is an essential component of a healthy democracy, and I know that the UK’s championing of that will have support across the House with our Defend Media Freedom campaign in 2019, which will culminate in a conference in London on 10 and 11 July with our friends from Canada. In raising these issues, we will never forget the trauma of the coup attempt and the extraordinary security threats that Turkey continues to face on a day-to-day basis. We can see that just by looking at a map of the region.

To conclude, we shall continue to engage with Turkey and other countries that have significant and sizable Kurdish populations on all the issues that have been raised in this important debate. We shall continue to press for lasting solutions that are proportionate, democratic and lawful.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.