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Arrest of Opposition Politicians: Turkey

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times to each other, and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. They should take the cleaning material with them or put it in the bin. I call Feryal Clark to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered arrest of opposition politicians in Turkey.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank the Minister for her time today.

It is said that to be a true friend and ally, one must point out when friends fall short and always be honest in one’s views. By that marker, it would be a dereliction of our friendship if we did not address our growing concerns about how some of our international partners are acting. We would be setting a dangerous precedent that says a formal allegiance trumps values among our neighbours and friends. Turkey is such a friend.

Turkey is a NATO member and an ally of Britain, and has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1950. Turkey is also a trade partner to Britain, but none of that can prevent us from speaking out when it is right and timely to do so. Turkey’s status as a friend makes it even more important that we speak out, and the actions of the Turkish Government should worry us all. The Turkish Government’s attack on free speech and their complete and utter intolerance of pluralism, in politics and the media and in nearly every walk of life, should set off alarm bells for us all.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I speak about the human rights abuses and I want to bring to her attention that it is not just politicians who suffer; it is also religious minorities. There is evidence that 140 Protestant families have been expelled from their homes and their jobs owing to the Islamic radical policy of the Turkish Government. Does the hon. Lady feel that it is time there was accountability for all those who suffer human rights abuses in Turkey?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A real intolerance of religious minority groups is building in the country, which I will touch on in my speech.

Many of us here know that the Kurdish question in Turkey is not new. The treatment of more than 20 million of its Kurdish citizens has been a major cause of concern in the west for many years. In 2015, the general election in Turkey saw HDP, a pro-Kurdish party led by a charismatic leader able to form a coalition of progressives, run in the elections. They were successful in breaking through the 10% threshold needed to win seats in the Turkish Parliament and, in doing so, deny the incumbent Government a majority. The response of the Government was to launch an all-out attack against HDP and the democratically elected opposition politicians who represent it. The litany of abuses stretches far and wide.

Selahattin Demirtaş, one of Turkey’s most prominent politicians and the co-leader of HDP, was arrested and has been in prison for over four and a half years. One of the first charges brought against Mr Demirtaş was that of attending an anti-ISIS protest—let us allow that to sink in. President Erdoğan’s purge of opposition politicians that began in August 2019 included MPs, mayors and councillors from both the HDP and the CHP parties. The CHP party is one of the oldest parties in Turkey, and those MPs, mayors and councillors were stripped of immunity and imprisoned.

Where these democratically elected officials have been imprisoned, President Erdoğan’s AKP Government have implemented a queue-like replacement of them. The AKP Government have imposed Ministry-appointed trustees in Kurdish majority eastern and south-eastern provinces, as well as in secularist and republican areas in the west, such as Izmir. These are actions that undermine democracy and representation, and will undermine the long-term stability of any democratic system.

When we look at the devastation that those actions have done to the plurality of Turkish democracy, we can see that 48 of the 65 municipalities won by HDP in the 2019 local elections have been taken over by the Ministry of the Interior. A total of 122 democratically elected municipal councillors have been detained since August 2019 by an incumbent Government for little more than having the nerve to stand against them in an election and win.

The constant harassment of HDP politicians and members is no longer done in disguise, but with boldness and impunity. This shocking number alone should spur action on the part of the UK Government. A fundamental tenet of a free and democratic system is accepting the right of people to elect their representatives in Government. Without this right, there is no democracy; there is just its appearance, in the hope that countries such as ours will continue to turn a blind eye.

The UK Government already know all this. They also know that the European Court of Human Rights has ordered the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaş from his extended pre-trial detention. Turkey is a member of the ECHR and therefore has an obligation to uphold the European convention on human rights—a convention that the UK was pivotal in drafting, under the leadership of Winston Churchill. We need to see the very same leadership extended from the UK once more.

I will end my contribution with some serious questions for the Minister. What action are the Government taking to encourage Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental human rights in areas of minority rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression? Will the Government call on Turkey for the immediate release of democratically elected politicians? How will the Government work with our NATO, European and global allies to impress on President Erdoğan that he must adhere to the international treaties that he has signed? What message do the UK Government believe taking no action sends to our other international partners, who look to us for leadership on human rights issues? Will the Minister raise with her Turkish counterparts the unacceptable and brutal attack on the Kurdish populations in Turkey?

Turkey is fast becoming a one-party, one-religion, one-ideology state, with no distinction between Parliament and the judiciary. It has created a system that allows one man to have an almost absolute monopoly of power, where the constitution is changed to ensure that that man can never be removed from office. It is of no benefit to anyone to repeat worn-out platitudes about Turkey’s important geo-political and strategic role. We must stand up for the people of Turkey, our true allies, to help recover a democracy in decline.

I will call other Members to speak now, mindful of the time, as I wish to call the Minister no later than 4.25 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) for securing this important debate. As she said, the increasingly authoritarian policies of President Erdoğan and his Government have been dragging Turkey into further political polarisation, social turmoil and economic instability.

The main opposition party, the HDP, which is majority Kurdish, has suffered continuous harassment, arrests and imprisonment, including over 700 arrests on 15 February this year. The party’s leaders have all received lengthy prison sentences and elected MPs and local politicians have been arrested and replaced with the Government’s appointed trustees.

This authoritarian regime has had a disproportionate effect on women in the country and their legal rights have been eroded. Women face abuse and violence, often by uniformed authorities, and disappearances by the police are commonplace. Many women politicians and trade union activists have been terrorised for defending basic human rights. Non-governmental organisations, including women’s groups and human rights organisations, have been closed by the authorities in the country. The LGBT+ community has also come under threat from the authoritarian policies of President Erdoğan. The country’s justice system is systematically used to criminalise peaceful activities such as Pride events and art exhibitions. Several students and an academic are currently facing prison sentences for organising a Pride march on campus that was banned by the university.

Trade unionists are also under constant attack by the current regime in Turkey, facing both administrative and judicial harassment for carrying out legitimate trade union activities. This makes it extremely concerning that on 29 December last year, the UK Government signed a trade agreement with the Government of Turkey that contains no enforceable commitments for Turkey to respect labour rights, following the same approach as Turkey’s customs agreement with the EU. This means that it will not be possible to use the UK-Turkey agreement to stop the Government of Turkey abusing the rights of unions and workers and committing widespread human rights abuses, as they have done in an increasingly brutal manner in recent years. The UK Government must follow the new US President, Joe Biden, in taking a much firmer line against Turkey’s continued human rights and workers’ rights violations, both within and outside its own borders.

With all that in mind, will the Minister do all she can to ensure that the UK Government do not become complicit with the Turkish Government in a bid to keep the recent roll-over trade deal with Turkey? If the UK Government fail to hold Turkey to account for its human rights abuses, they will, in effect, become complicit. The UK Government must therefore do all they can to push the Turkish Government to work towards protecting fundamental minority rights in the country, and commit to suspending the UK-Turkey trade deal should the Turkish Government implement their threatened ban on the socially progressive HDP party. Finally, I call on the UK Government and the Minister to require the Government of Turkey to show respect for core International Labour Organisation conventions as a precondition of the UK-Turkey agreement being applied.

I thank my hon. Friends who have just spoken. This is an area of work that the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria has been deliberating on. The connection with Kurds in Syria is important, because many of the demonstrations that the Turkish politicians have been accused of attending, and then arrested for, relate to their fight against ISIS in Syria. Over the past few weeks and months, the APPG has been interviewing politicians from Turkey, including municipal leaders and MPs. Our recommendations will hopefully be out at the end of this month, but I want to sum up a few quick points that seem to be coming out of some of those deliberations.

First of all—I will phrase this as “I”, because the APPG has not signed any of these things off; these are my interpretations of what the APPG has heard so far—I am concerned that politicians from opposition parties are routinely accused of bizarre crimes. We heard that they were accused of committing crimes before they were born, such as attending political demonstrations, or were accused of crimes because their families or relatives had done things, going against the principle of justice that states that a person should be judged for what they do, not for what their predecessors have done. Politicians have also been accused of crimes for speaking out for ethnic groups in the Parliament, so protected speech in the Parliament has disappeared.

There have also been trials of politicians from the leading party, AKP, so let us not pretend that they have all been HDP, but they are vastly, overwhelmingly HDP—something like 90% of its MPs, compared with only two AKP MPs, have been tried in the past 10 years. Traditionally in Turkey, with the ruling party’s MPs, the system was that trials were held in the local area. The recent change to trials being held in the central court in Ankara, therefore making MPs unable to provide witnesses or local representatives to those court trials in order to defend themselves, is a key difficulty in obtaining justice. We know that there have been European Court of Human Rights judgments, but they are clearly not complied with.

The removal of MPs should, in my view, be a rare circumstance. However, 154 MPs have had their immunity removed in Turkey, 54 of whom were HDP MPs, and almost 100 were from other parties. Let us remember that the CHP is not a radical loony left or loony right party, but the founding party of modern Turkey. The fact that its MPs are now being targeted makes me feel that if we do not speak up when minority MPs are targeted, we will see what happens: majority MPs from established parties start to be attacked.

Many Kurdish MPs have said that they do not demand their own state but want to be able to talk about how Kurdish representation happens. When the ambassador wrote to me, he said, “We don’t recognise Kurds in our country. We recognise only Turks.” To me that is a denial of people’s civil and cultural rights, and it is a real problem with representation. I do not want to go on for much longer, because I want to give the Minister time, but I hope that she will respond to those points and commit to reading the APPG’s report in detail when it is completed, and responding to it in writing.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) for securing this important debate. Democracy, security and human rights are rightly of serious interest to all Members of this House, and in the time that I have I shall try to respond to the points that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have raised this afternoon.

President Erdoğan says that 2021 will be a year of reforms for freedoms and the Turkish economy. We welcome those positive intentions and encourage the Turkish Government to deliver action that will improve the human rights situation, not least through reforms to the judiciary. Turkey has made it clear recently that increased prosperity and protecting human rights would be in its own interests. Naturally, we wholeheartedly support that. We therefore welcome the recent publication of Turkey’s human rights action plan and encourage its speedy and comprehensive implementation. We stand ready to assist in any way we can. With nearly 400 actions, the action plan is thorough, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I reiterate that it must be implemented in full.

As a fellow, and long-standing, member of the Council of Europe, we hope that the measures in question will bring Turkey more into line with the high standards that it expects of its members. We fully expect Turkey to implement each of the judgments against it by the European Court of Human Rights. As NATO allies and G20 economies, the UK and Turkey should continue to work closely together. Our shared interests encompass trade, security, defence and climate change. We also share an interest in resolving regional issues such as the continued division of Cyprus, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and migration.

Turkey is strategically important to us as we forge links with a more diverse range of partners in the interests of Britain’s security and prosperity. That said, and although the UK enjoys a productive partnership with Turkey on the issues that I have mentioned, we have concerns about the human rights situation, and we raise them with the Turkish authorities. We share the concerns of our US and European partners on issues to do with media freedom, the treatment of human rights defenders, and the LGBTI community and opposition parties.

We note that a number of HDP—or Peoples’ Democratic party—MPs have been arrested for alleged links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The UK has also proscribed the PKK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners.

I do not want to challenge the proscription of the PKK, but does the Minister recognise that the European Court of Justice has twice now said that the proscription was illegal in the European sense and did not meet the requirements? So has the Belgian court. There are court cases ongoing on the issue, so it is a slightly open question—not what Turkey thinks, but what the international community thinks.

As I have explained, we have proscribed the PPK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners. If those links are proved to be accurate, we urge the HDP to distance itself entirely from the PPK and its ongoing terrorist activity.

Like others, I am deeply saddened by the news that Turkish soldiers and civilians lost their lives in Gara at the hands of the PPK. Our ambassador offered his condolences to Turkey at the time, and I reiterate them now. However, we have registered our concern at the OSCE and the Council of Europe about the large number of detentions. Those include the ongoing and lengthy detention without trial of former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with the HDP to hear its concerns, just as we do with all the main political parties.

We are also concerned by Turkey’s delayed implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgments on the imprisonment of Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, the human rights activist. We expect Turkey, as a member of the Council of Europe, to implement those Court decisions, in line with the base values that underpin our co-operation. In accordance with that position, we have participated in Council of Europe discussions on both those cases as recently as just last week.

We support the rights of LGBTI groups in Turkey. We have encouraged Turkey to respect the rights of the LGBTI community, to allow Pride marches to go ahead unchallenged, and to discourage disparaging public statements targeting the LGBTI+ community.

The hon. Member for Enfield North and others mentioned the replacement of mayors. We, too, have concerns about the replacement of a large number of HDP mayors by state-appointed trustees in the south-east of Turkey. The Turkish Government took those decisions because they contend that those mayors were allegedly channelling funding and support to the PKK. Again, if that is proved to be the case, we condemn support for terrorism unreservedly. However, Turkey must undertake fairly, transparently and with full respect to the rule of law any legal processes against opposition politicians or legally elected representatives.

Allowing fair representation and the provision of local democracy is essential to the long-term health of Turkish society and to Turkey’s international reputation. As we all know here, a healthy opposition is a sign of functioning and flourishing democracy. Turkey must respect the views of the opposition and allow their politicians to speak freely and without fear of reprisal. We keenly encourage that Government’s renewed calls for reform in this area. We also encourage Turkey to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is upheld, as enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, and that the rights of minorities, such as the Alevi, Jewish and Christian communities, are fully observed.

We will continue the conversation about our human rights concerns with Turkey. The hon. Member for Enfield North asked whether I would raise that issue with my counterparts. I hope to visit Turkey soon—travel restrictions permitting, of course—to raise those issues with my Turkish counterparts. My ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad, who holds the human rights portfolio in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, also plans to visit Turkey in the coming months.

When the Minister visits Turkey, will she please bring up the issue of the 140 protestant families who have been expelled from Turkey—or whose expulsion is pending—primarily because they are protestant Christians? Turkey is taking their houses and their jobs, and asking them to get out.

Obviously, I will have a range of discussions with counterparts when I am in Turkey, and I have had discussions previously. I discussed the human rights situation, and specifically Osman Kavala’s ongoing detention, during the virtual visit that I made to Ankara in December. The FCDO has discussed with the Turkish embassy in London not only our concerns, but the development of the reform proposals.

I have some concluding remarks, but in the time I have left—five minutes, I believe—I will see whether I can cover a few more of the questions raised. Hon. Members raised the issue of LGBTI rights. We support the rights of LGBTI groups in Turkey. We have encouraged Turkey to respect the rights of the LGBTI community and to allow Pride marches to go ahead unchallenged, and to discourage disparaging public statements targeting the LGBTI+ community. We also support minority groups in Turkey, including the Alevi community and Christians, in line with the provisions in the Turkish constitution that protect the rights of religious minorities.

The hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) raised the issue of trade and human rights. The UK has long supported the promotion of our values globally. We are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. We do not see a choice between securing growth, investment and trade for the UK and supporting human rights. Despite our varying approach to agreements with partners, we will always have open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of opposition politicians who have been arrested or detained. To reinforce what I said in my remarks, we remain concerned about the four-year detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, who is the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic party. With our international partners, we call on Turkey to meet its obligations as a founding member of the Council of Europe and to release Demirtaş from his extended pre-trial detention.

To conclude, while we seek to strengthen our positive links with Turkey, we make no secret of our concerns and values. We are a critical friend. I can assure colleagues that stronger UK-Turkey relations will not be at the expense of standing up for human rights, a principle that this Government hold dear. We do share values with Turkey. We are in the family of NATO and at the Council of Europe. Although these issues continue to be a challenge, we talk to Turkey about them as a friend and with encouragement.

We will urge our Turkish counterparts to make swift progress, to deliver the reforms they have promised for this year, and to enact them fully through the human rights action plan. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) referred to a report. I am sure that he will send it to me in due course so that I can read it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.