The price of standing against Turkey Afrin offensive: Academic detained for 5,5 months

by Anya Briy / Mahir Kurtay    


Prof. Dr. Onur Hamzaoglu, an internationally known academic and a co-spokesperson of the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), was released from pre-trial detention in the first hearing of his trial in Ankara on July 19. He was detained on February 9 this year in connection to the press-release made on February 4 condemning Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, northwest Syria, as an occupation. Turkey and its Free Syrian Army allies launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces who were in control of the area, under the pretext of “neutralizing” terrorists. Hamzaoglu, along with other HDP- and HDK-affiliated individuals, was accused of “promotion of enmity among the population” and "propaganda for a terror organization” [PKK]. While other individuals detained together with Hamzaoglu were released following the arrest, he and the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) deputy chair Fadime Çelebi spent more than 5 months behind the bars before their first trial took place on July 19. In total, 11 people stood the trial that day, including Socialist Re-Foundation Party (SYKP) Co-Chair Ahmet Kaya, Green and Left Future Party (YSGP) Co-Chairs Naci Sönmez and Eylem Tuncaelli, Socialist Solidarity Platform (SODAP) co-spokesperson Kezban Konukcu, Revolutionary Party Chairman Musa Piroglu, HDK co-spokesperson Gulistan Kilic Kocyigit, and Democratic Regions Party (DBP) co-deputy chair Hacer Ozdemir. The court ordered the removal of  judicial control measures and travel bans for the defendants. The next hearing was scheduled for January 19, 2019.

One of the defense lawyers, Huseyin Aslan, commented on the outcome of the court hearing: “As trial lawyers, we assessed that the statement made by the defendants was within the scope of freedom of expression and thought. We stated that making that statement could not legally constitute a crime. We achieved the release of two of our friends. And other friends’ bans to leave the country were lifted. But we argue that this case must end in a complete acquittal. This is what the lawyers, public and our friends demand.”


Defense: war is a matter of public health

At the hearing, Hamzaoglu delivered a defense justifying his condemnation of Turkey’s invasion of Afrin: “I am here because I am an HDK co-spokesperson. Even though in the recent trials evidence has not been taken into consideration and instead the state’s opinions have been accepted as evidence, I take the floor so that the things that I will say go down in the written history.” Hamzaoglu signed the press statement in question as HDK co-spokesperson, with the HDK being one of the nine organizations-signatories, in order to prevent the predictable consequences— “death and pain”— of Turkey’s “military operation” in Afrin, that they viewed within the scope of “law of military occupation.”

An active member of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), Hamzaoglu was also one of the signatories of the statement made by the TTB declaring the war as a matter of public health when Turkey launched the military operation in Afrin. TTB members were also detained after making the statement, including TTB head Rasit Tükel.

As Hamzaoglu explained in an interview after his release, “The TTB made a statement that war was a matter of public health. A group of 170 people, including myself, said that the Afrin operation was wrong, and if the peace were removed from that region, there would be deaths and injuries and the people there would have to live through difficulties again. We said with our foresight, before the bad outcome became clear, that war brings death and that it must not happen. We said that it was an invasion attempt, it must not be carried out.”

Hamzaoglu reiterated in his defense: “I am a physician and a public health specialist. I know that the human natural condition is to be healthy. In public health, before dealing with a disease, we strive to help people to have access to clean water and adequate food. With wars, there is a rise of disabilities, migrations and ecological problems and this is a matter of public health. We made an anti-war statement for these reasons. If we can ensure a single day without war in the world, we can prevent tens of thousands of people from dying and tens of thousands of people from becoming crippled. Ä°f wars stop just for the duration of this hearing, with the cease of deaths and injuries that are experienced every minute, tens of thousands of people would be saved.”

The Turkish military and its Free Syrian Allies announced the Operation Olive Branch on January 20, 2018, and asserted control over the city on March 18. The operation led to deaths of hundreds civilians. Around 450,000 people had to flee their homes, with 200,000 estimated to remain in Afrin under a new regime administered by Turkey through its police and military forces and armed groups funded by it. The international community stood by, with neither the US nor Russia interfering with Turkey’s occupation of Afrin despite both global powers’ cooperation with Rojava’s self-administration. A report on Afrin released by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in July 2018 recorded "high levels of violent crime, with civilians falling victim to robberies, harassment, abductions and murder," as well as discrimination against Kurds in particular. In its recent report, Amnesty International accused Turkey for “giving free reign” to its own forces and Syrian armed groups to commit serious human rights violations against the local population under the Turkish “occupation.”

Hundreds of people were detained for speaking out against the military campaign in Afrin. Only in the period of January-February 2018, according to the Turkish Interior Ministry, 648 people were arrested over social media posts. 197 people were held in detention for protesting the operation in other forms, such as public actions, or for expressing solidarity with those detained because of their comments on social media. 14 students who staged a rally at Bogazici University in March were detained on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda. 9 of them remained in a pre-trial detention till the first hearing in June.


HDK as a platform for the common future of peoples of Turkey

Hamzaoglu’s case was a part of the Turkish government’s wave of arrests of HDP and HDK affiliates taking place at the time of the Afrin operation. As HDK co-spokesperson and HDP MP Gulistan Kilic Kocyigit stated in the press-release delivered before the trial in front of the courthouse, “One of the aims of this operation [arrests] was to terrorize the HDK congress that was supposed to take place on February 11 and to ensure it would remain in the dark.”

As HDK co-spokesperson, Hamzaoglu explained the objectives of the organization: “Turkey has two major problems. The first is the labor of people who have to work in order to live. Another is the Kurdish problem. For the solution of both problems, we entered the 2011 general elections with the Labor, Democracy and Freedom Bloc and achieved success. Later, more than 40 non-governmental organizations, writers, academicians and associations founded the HDK in accordance with law. The HDK is a union of workers, immigrants, artists, those whose living space was destroyed, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersexual individuals, all of the oppressed, who came together in the face of the oppression. The HDK is a platform that aims to build a life for human dignity. The [HDK] statement 'The Kurdish problem should be solved politically, mothers should not cry” is an example of this. The HDK is a platform that can provide a foundation for the establishment of a common future for the people of Turkey.”

Hamzaoglu explained the reasons for the state’s prosecution of the HDK in one of the interviews after his release: “Because they are sure that the HDK will not be integrated directly into the system, they want to marginalize these structures, discredit them in the public eyes.”

Salih Karis, an HDK executive board member, expressed a similar opinion in an interview at the court hearing.  “Since the HDK is seen as a big political danger, we are dealing with political decision making and punishments are received for political reasons.” As another HDK executive board member Mehmet Siddik commented before the hearing, “Without exaggeration, we spend half of their lives in courts.”


Opposing the Turkish state: “I told the truth and continue telling the truth”

Hamzaoglu stressed the authoritarian nature of Turkey’s government: “There are attempts to manage the agenda of Turkey through fundamentalism, racism, nationalism and anti-enlightenment. Those in power define their own truths.” He pointed out the arbitrariness of the justice system in the country: “Legal decisions must be legitimate according to the laws and the society’s conscience. A text can only be interpreted with the words it contains, it is unlawful to put forward the words it does not contain, doing this is solely a malicious intent.” The evidence collected by the police during Hamzaoglu’s home search, namely his writings, class notes, photographs, and even humor magazines, had no connection to the charges put forward against him.

The Afrin operation was not the first time that Hamzaoglu had opposed the government. An internationally known academic, doctor and human rights activist, in 2011 he published the findings on the effects of the industrial waste and pollution on public health in Dilovasi, an industrial district near Istanbul: “Trying to show the truth, I opposed the government three times, in Dilovasi, in regards to the Kurdish problem and in the Afrin war. With air pollution in Turkey being at 56 units, this value is more than three times higher than the World Health Organization limits. With what right, for whose sake, in whose interest is this legislation? I told the truth and continue telling the truth. I opposed the crime in Dilovasi. I have not taken a step back. There is nothing I have not experienced.” After publishing the results of his research, Hamzaoglu faced pressure from industrial companies, local authorities and his university at Kocaeli that opened a disciplinary investigation against him. In 2016, he was dismissed from the university by an emergency decree for signing the Peace Petition on January 11 that condemned Turkey’s military campaign in the predominantly Kurdish cities in the Southeast in 2015-2016. Subsequently, Hamzaoglu became one of the founders of the Kocaeli Solidarity Academy (KODA) together with other academics dismissed from his university, which became a platform for alternative knowledge sharing between professors, students and local residents.

In his defense, Hamzaoglu stated that his detention became a serious punishment for him:

“I have not been able to attend the congress that I had been joining every year since 1989 nor meetings organized every Wednesday by Solidarity [Kocaeli Solidarity Academy KODA]; I can not complete academic articles, I cannot continue my academic work.

You can say these things can be compensated. While I was under arrest, my mother lost her life. I could not thank her one last time. Due to a disease that we know was connected to stress, she went into intensive care for 85 days after I was taken into custody. My imprisonment has already become a heavy penalty for me.”


“State of emergency became a normal state”

The widespread persecution of the opposition has been carried out by the Turkish state within the framework of the state of emergency declared on July 20, 2016 after the failed coup attempt. The state of emergency was formally ended on July 18, 2018; however, with the new presidential system that came into effect with the last elections, Erdogan retained his powers without the need to resort to emergency decrees. As Hamzaoglu said in an interview with the daily Evrensel after his release, “From the very beginning, the state of emergency has been a permanent system, that is, freedoms have been abolished, the state’s rule became arbitrary.” As he stated in his defense, “With the polarization caused by the state of emergency --which was declared and continued till yesterday and which, starting with today, will become the system itself-- it became easier to create an atmosphere of oppression, fear and violence. In the June 24th elections, described as democratic, fair and trustworthy, the society has become even more polarized by the government; threat, fear and violence have become an instrument of public fear. The legislative body, the parliament, was first disabled, and in these days they are trying to turn it into nothing; parliamentary immunity was removed, party co-chairs, parliamentarians, municipality co-chairs have been imprisoned. In 94 of the 102 municipalities in the Kurdish cities, the government’s trustees were appointed [instead of elected mayors], 130,000 public employees have been sacked and banned from public offices. A new political system was established in this country with the "Presidential Government System" prepared based on the June 2017 referendum.  In the name of the interests of both domestic and foreign bosses and imperialism, whatever laws necessary to satisfy their expectations from this country, are implemented one by one. The government defines its own truths, formalizes and imposes them with emergency decrees.”

As another defendant Eylem Tuncealli, general co-spokesperson of The Greens and The Left Party of the Future, commented in an interview after the court hearing, “State of emergency has already become a normal state. Especially with KHK [emergency] decrees and new presidential system, it is no longer seen as abnormal. I’ll give you an example of how the state of emergency was lifted. An emergency decree was published, according to which a board of 5 people will be established and these 5 people will be chosen by the president. He will determine their tasks and pay their salaries. Everything, all the powers in Turkey are connected to the presidency. There is no need for emergency decrees. Unfortunately we are anticipating a system of authoritarianism.”

Arzu Cerkezoglu, Chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), who attended the hearing, expressed a similar opinion: “The lifting of the state of emergency cannot ensure a democratic environment. Already the elections on June 24 showed that this was planned as a permanent regime and with the shortening of parliament’s powers, there was no longer a need for the state of emergency in order to establish an oppressive environment. The working class saw a great loss in this process.” Elaborating on the implications of the new presidential system, she stated: “Turkey entered a new period. The regime has changed. But we know well --have known since July 20, 2016-- what kind of regime will be carried out under a new name, which classes will benefit and which classes will lose. It is clear that the new regime has been brought to life as a tool of capital. It restricts strike opportunities. Working class’ work and life conditions greatly regressed. Where there is no democracy, there are no labor rights. Where there are no labor rights, there is no democracy.”

In his defense, Hamzaoglu also stressed steadily worsening conditions of the working class worldwide as well as in Turkey:

“Even though the capitalist society we are living in is against human and nature, is irrational and contains all kinds of inequalities, ever since the Industrial Revolution, the "prosperity level" has been used as a basic and widespread motivational tool for the broader public. So much so that slavery, which happened hundreds of years ago, has become a form of "mental slavery" in capitalism.

Since the industrial revolution, the level of prosperity has ceased to increase. Now the level of prosperity of the new generation is lower than that of previous generations. As usual, those who have to work in order to live are forced by bosses to pay for the crisis. We have seen the effects of the capitalist crisis in general. Now let’s look at the effects of this crisis on our country. In Turkey, income per capita decreased to a great extent, the Turkish lira has lost 27 percent of its value in the last three months.” The worsening economic crisis in Turkey was one of the reasons why Erdogan called snap elections, as he feared to lose much-needed voter support to gain a majority in the parliament.


Solidarity: “We are here to show once more that we will continue to defend the interests of the people, workers, and poor”

Almost 300 people came to support Hamzaoglu and other defendants at the trial. The court hearing was observed by a delegation of European Greens and an international delegation of academics, HDP and HDK officials, as well as Hamzaoglu’s colleagues and students from Kocaeli University and KODA.

Erkan Bas, an HDP MP and a constituent assembly member of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), stated in an interview during the court hearing that Hamzaoglu’s trial was just one of many political processes in the country taking place in violation of the law. “We are here to show once more that we will continue to defend the interests of the people, workers, and poor. I wish the decision would be made on a legal basis. But the decisions are not legal, generally, they are political. From the legal point of view, all of our friends should be immediately released and the case dismissed. But all of us know that decisions depend on what those in power want.” One of the representatives of the Turkish left who ran for parliament as a HDP candidate, Bas commented on the recent elections, “Basically, in the elections in which the government was using money and media power to the full extent, with all our limited opportunities we tried to be the people’s voice in this unjust and unequal struggle. We have to establish a country where Turkish and Kurdish workers will be able to live in peace and equality. Anything other than this option is a disaster.”

In the press release delivered before the hearing, European Greens committee member Evelyne Huytebroeck condemned Turkey’s prosecution of the Turkish Greens co-chairs Eylem Tuncaelli and Naci Sönmez: “Defending democracy, human rights and liberty of opinion is the role and responsibility of the party. It is the right of the party to defend their opinion and that’s why we are here to support them today.”

In the Evrensel interview, Hamzaoglu commented on the role of Europe for the current political atmosphere in Turkey: “As long as the war in Syria continues and there is bargaining  [between Turkey and Europe] whether migrants stay here or go to Europe, it will be difficult for the democratic forces in Turkey. Because despite objective conditions in Turkey, we are also looking at the EU’s special support of the [Turkish] government in the last years.”