Erdogan Ramps up Repression of Kurds and Leftists, Even Outside Turkey

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A Kurdish protester attacked by Erdogan’s agents in Washington, DC speaks out, and connects it to Turkey’s crackdown on Kurds and leftists domestically and its invasion of Afrin, Syria

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Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s the Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ramped up the violent repression of Kurds and leftists not just inside his country, but abroad as well.

Erdogan visited Washington, D.C. in May 2017 to meet with Donald Trump. In response, left-wing and pro-Kurdish activists in the United States organized a protest outside the Turkish embassy. These protesters were then physically attacked by members of the Turkish leader’s security team. Nine activists were hospitalized, some with serious injuries. Shocking video of the assault went viral on social media.

Well, nearly one year later the U.S. government has dropped the charges against the majority of the Turkish agents accused of carrying out the attack. Federal prosecutors dismissed all charges against 11 of the 15 bodyguards who were suspected of partaking in the assault.

Coincidentally, these charges were dropped just one day before former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Erdogan in the Turkish capital Ankara. U.S. officials claim the charges were not dropped for political reasons, but critics are skeptical.

These charges are also being dismissed at a time, right now, when NATO member Turkey is carrying out an illegal invasion of northern Syria. The Turkish military is fighting in alliance with extremist Islamists, including alleged former members of ISIS, and Salafi rebels in the Free Syrian Army. These Turkish-backed forces have killed hundreds of mostly Kurdish civilians, and burned down and looted Kurdish homes.

To discuss the scandal we are joined by Mehmet Tankan. Mehmet is a Kurdish activist from Turkey who is one of the protesters attacked by Erdoğan supporters in D.C. He’s involved with the American Kurdish Association. Thank you for joining us.

MEHMET TANKAN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

BEN NORTON: Great. So, Mehmet, you were at the protest in Washington, D.C. last year when you all were attacked by Erdogan supporters. Can you speak a little bit about what happened?

MEHMET TANKAN: Yes, I was there too. Some of our friends we were there, too. We were just chatting, and then saying, do our protests against Erdogan. To us the United States to stop Erdogan, what he is doing to Kurds in Turkey, in Syria. There was a peaceful protest, because, honestly, I had sunglasses and I was feeling, really, just different, nice. And then that attack that happened, and then they’re kicking us, beating us. Kids. They were two kids, too. And then there were elderly people and some late. The woman, too. They didn’t care about kids or elderly or woman, or anyone. That just attacked just one time as the forces, kind of forced us, to attack some people. They attacked us and then beat us and kicked us, and then we, almost 11 of, of, us, hospital. We went to a hospital for a lot of stuff.

BEN NORTON: Mehmet, can you speak about why you all were protesting outside the Turkish embassy?

MEHMET TANKAN: Yes. You know I’m Kurdish, from Turkey. You know, I’ve always been like, for Turkish government, others, they never, we never had, like, has a right to be as Kurds living in Turkey. And there was Erdogan, before, he jailed hundreds of Kurdish politicians from the HDP, and he destroyed 11 of the Kurdish cities in Turkey. And he killed hundreds people in, the Turkish forces killed a hundred people in southeast Turkey, and they were protesting to him why he, someone has to stop this guy. Stop the killing of Kurds. And then he turned back to, he was, started killing the Kurds in Afrin, too. He was preparing for, too, Rojava.

That’s why we are asking too, hey, we we need we need to stop this guy. Stop the killing of Kurds. And the other thing we’re like, he was against the Kurdish referendum in South Kurdistan, too, which is part of Iraq. And we, as a Kurd I want to say Erdogan has to stop. It’s just not Kurds in Turkey has a problem, other Democrat, other activists, and academics, they have all a problem. He put a lot of people in jail. Unemployment, thousands of them. We were just there to [chanting] them out like the First Amendment, to say Erdogan has to stop. He must be stopped. That was why we were there. That was our reason.

BEN NORTON: And then the U.S. government claims that the reason it dropped these charges was because there supposedly wasn’t enough evidence. Even though there’s a lot of video footage of this attack, the U.S. claims that it did not drop the charges against these Turkish agents for political reasons. Do you buy that argument? Do you think that this is actually apolitical?

MEHMET TANKAN: I cannot say about the politics stuff because I don’t know how much is it. But I can say about enough evidence. There’s a lot of videos, photos, of a lot of things about that. And there is a lot of articles about that stuff, what happened. Almost one month it was in media, and they were showing everyone they did to us. It was everything is clear for evidence. And even John McCain, he said, that time, he said everything is clear. We don’t have, we don’t need another evidence to charge them. For evidence and support I think everything is enough.

BEN NORTON: And then you also moved to the United States about six years ago, you said, and before that you had been living in Turkey. In these past several years, you know, things have always been bad for Kurds, for minority groups, and for the left. There’s been a lot of repression for many years in Turkey. But specifically in the past few years we’ve seen a massive increase in the repression.

Erdogan, after a failed coup, alleged coup, in 2016, Erdogan purged hundreds of thousands of people from the government. He’s imprisoned tens of thousands of people. And the political forces, particularly pro-Kurdish forces, have endured the brunt of this, particularly the HDP. Can you speak about the situation inside Turkey, and the repression faced by Kurds and by the left?

MEHMET TANKAN: You know, I studied in Turkey, studied in Ankara, and that time of study was it like a kind of problem, too. Always there have problem with Kurds and for some democrat and leftists, there was always a problem for them. But the last, after 20013, there was a kind of peace process that time. It’s a couple years, was okay, was good. Even when asking [one family] they were okay. But after coup, he turned this coup against a person, and other lefties and Democrats in Turkey, and the people who wants the peace. He used this coup against them, is not against the other people.

That’s why the Turkey is everything getting worse. Now we’re getting worse. I don’t know what’s going to be for Turkey, but Turkey is getting really far away from the West, too, and Turkey really became close to the Middle East countries. Because before that Turkey was like in between Middle East countries and Europe. But now Turkey just turned back to the Middle East, and then kind of became radical Islam. It is just kind of really hard for people who live there now. It kind of became a dictator. I cannot say 100 percent, but every day is getting worse, if you read it, and watching the TV what’s going on.

And then the old media is always working for Erdogan, and everything is just now belonging to Erdogan in Turkey. He thinks that he’s Turkey.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And of course, we’ve seen that many prominent journalists have been imprisoned. In fact, journalists who reported on Turkey’s policy in Syria, which we’ll get to in a moment, specifically reporting on Turkey’s arming of extremist Islamists in Syria have been imprisoned for doing that. That reporting work.

But I’m also interested, I mean, you mention that there has been a rise of Islamism inside Turkey. This is a country that going back to Ataturk has a very secular modern history, in the post-Ottoman period.

What’s interesting about this to me is, you know, Erdogan, his party the AKP, is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. And clearly he has been incorporating Islamism into politics, but it seems to me that he also has support from Kemalists, some Kemalists, who are largely secular, and even far-right fascistic forces like the Grey Wolves, and these other extremely nationalist militias. Why do you think these right-wing, sometimes secular forces have allied behind Erdogan? How has he been able to create such widespread support among some of these nationalist groups?

MEHMET TANKAN: Yeah, I think it’s one, became the Kurds, the nationalists and just, kind, of I cannot say the leftists, but the Kemalists, they became the same point. They came to the same point against the Kurds. They don’t want the Kurds to have their own, and they don’t have any freedom. When it became the Kurds they came they came together. That’s all their point. The other way, they really, they don’t like each other. But when the point come to Kurds, that’s why they became together and then just destroyed whatever the Kurds has.

BEN NORTON: And then can you talk about what is the state of the People’s Democratic Party, the HDP? I know two years ago there was shocking video on social media of the co-chair of the HDP having her door broken down and being arrested by Turkish forces. And many members of parliament, who had been elected representatives from the HDP, are now in prison. Do you know what the state is of the party today?

MEHMET TANKAN: Now the party’s really just kind of struggling now, because at the, [inaudible] they jailed two co-chair. And now many of the parliament too they’re jailed, and dozens people of their members, they’re now in jail, too. And there is hard for the HDP, but still they are doing some. They are asking for democracy. They are asking for their rights.

But it is rather hard for them to work in Turkey because Turkey, Erdogan’s new party is really dangerous. I think because MHP, this is Grey Wolves, they are nationalists, and Erdogan now is with them. Before Erdogan was just by himself. And then he had the different partner. But now his partner they are really dangerous, MHP. And that’s why we, I don’t know how Turkey is going back to democracy, or some some other way. But that now is rather hard for other people to live in Turkey, and even now he bought all, biggest media in Turkey, too, he bought, he, some people bought it. That media too, everything is going to be controlled by Erdogan.

BEN NORTON: And then finally, let’s move a little bit toward Turkey’s foreign policy. We saw that, in January, Turkey invaded northern Syria and began launching an attack on Afrin, which is a Kurdish-majority area. In fact it’s estimated that about 90 percent of the population was Kurdish. The UN has said that two-thirds of the population in Afrin had fled in this Turkish assault, which is being waged by the Turkish military in alliance with rebels, Islamist rebels from the Free Syrian Army along with other extremists.

Can you speak about what happened in Afrin? I mean, we’ve seen some horrifying videos on social media and photos of Salafi rebels burning down Kurdish homes, looting Kurdish businesses. What do you think is going on in northern Syria, and what is Turkey’s role there?

MEHMET TANKAN: You know Turkey always, they’re calling Kurds, wherever the Kurds asking for politics, like it stutters, they are asking to, they are calling to them terrorists. But they don’t care. They just always put a different name.

I just want to go a little bit back in the 11 still Turkey, the Kurdish cities he destroyed, with the same forces. And the same forces were against the Kurdish referendum in Iraq, too. They were ready to attack, too, in the front of the border of Iraq. They were attacked to the same forces. But the now same forces destroyed Afrin, too, and then took over Afrin. And then hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people, they left their home there, everything too. Now we know they’re living in streets. They living in a kind of desert. They don’t have nothing. They have nothing, some of them, they set up in his car and the truck, and they really need help.

Erdogan, and his partner now, they don’t care about the Kurds, where they live, what they are asking. But they just care about if the Kurds are asking for some political status, then they will destroy it. They don’t care. They are saying, even they’re worse, they say even the Kurds go on some island in Brazil. If they have their own, they will destroy that, too. That’s why it’s all about the Kurds they are against. It is not about some parties, or YPG or YPJ. Erdoğan, they are, they care about the Kurds, what they have something, they will destroy.

BEN NORTON: And then, of course, Turkey claims that the YPG is a so-called terrorist organization, and Turkey claims that its assault in northern Syria is an anti-terror operation. What do you say to that?

MEHMET TANKAN: You know that Turkey, whenever the Kurds are asking something, they are terrorists. Even us, when we are protesting him in America. He’s calling us terrorists, too. He’s calling some American terrorists, too. Sometimes has called everyone, everyone. Whatever he doesn’t like he called them terrorist, too. But he’s not, now he’s not calling the Kemalists in Turkey terrorists. If the Kemalists really go against him, he will call them terrorists, too.

It’s not just, he, he just called them. They don’t care about, with the YPG, YPG never attacked in Turkey. They cannot prove anything. The YPG never attacked any different country. They just try to defend their people against the Islamic State, ISIS terrorist group. They didn’t take, they didn’t do anything with Turkey. They were always ready to make a deal with Turkey. They’re asking Turkey to just make peace. And because they are a neighbor they need to be with Turkey, too, good.

But Turkey never accept that. They just attacked Afrin. Then now they are trying to attack the [inaudible] over there. Try to, in Sinjar, there, try to attack Manbij, too. That is just Turkey’s about the Kurds where they are, if they are asking something is easy to call them terrorists for Turkey.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and you’re referencing that now Erdogan has threatened to launch an attack on Sinjar in Iraq. And of course there are also suspicions that he will next invade Manbij in northeastern Syria. For viewers, if you want to see the coverage of that that we’ll be doing in the future, please go to therealnews.com, and keep track of the coverage we’re doing. Mehmet Tankan, thank you so much for joining us and speaking about your experience.

MEHMET TANKAN: I just want to add something about our case, because, you know, I moved to this country. I want to feel safe. I don’t want to feel unsafe. This, Erdogan, if he can do here that much to us, having nothing to happen to his guards, that mean can do more the next time when he come to here. They don’t care about, they will, they would kill someone too easily. Because this is not the first time he’s doing that stuff in our [information].

That’s why I just want to live, I want to feel safe. There’s a lot of evidence, videos show about how they attacked us as peaceful protesters, and just want, I want justice for, against those people. Thank you.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And of course, this was actually the second attack on protesters by, by Turkish agents. So thank you so much for speaking about your experience, Mehmet, and thanks for sharing your story on the Real News.

MEHMET TANKAN: Thank you.

BEN NORTON: And I’m Ben Norton. You’re watching the Real News.