“Look at them”, a mother cried, pointing at a row of portraits lined up in a community hall of Diyarbakir, the largest city of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast.
“They were just children. How can all these children be terrorists?”
For two months, a group of mothers has gathered in this hall to hold a vigil for their children, nine teenagers killed during a military lockdown in Diyarbakir’s historic center. Their bodies still lie in the streets nearly three months after their deaths; their families have been unable to retrieve them amid ongoing clashes.
Some of the teenagers, the families say, may have been involved with the youth wing of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. Others were unmistakably civilians: among the dead are a 13-year-old boy and a girl shot dead wearing her school uniform.
The Turkish government, however, insists that all those it targets are militants. Instead of investigating the deaths, one grandmother noted bitterly, “they call everyone they kill a terrorist.”
With the Islamic State on its southern border and the PKK resuming its attacks on security forces following the collapse of a two-year-old ceasefire last summer, Turkey has every reason to be concerned about terrorism. The first three months of the year have seen four deadly attacks in major cities. On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed four people in central Istanbul’s busiest street. In the southeast, attacks on soldiers and police have become a near-daily occurrence.
But in recent months, “terrorism” has also come to mean making statements the Turkish government doesn’t agree with. Dissenting voices — journalists, lawyers, academics and opposition politicians — have been arrested for disseminating propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization.
From reports about clashes in the southeast to petitions calling for peace and, most recently, carrying invitations for a Kurdish New Year’s celebration, anything that appears to challenge government policy towards the “Kurdish issue” is quickly labeled “terror propaganda” — a phrase derived from Turkey’s broad anti-terror law, which criminalizes “making propaganda in connection with [terror] organizations.”
For Turkey’s president, however, that’s still not enough. Last week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the definition of terrorists to be expanded to include “supporters of terrorism,” raising fears of an even greater crackdown.
“Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact that they are actually terrorists,” Erdogan said last Tuesday. “It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists.”
There was no difference, he added, between “a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their position and pen to serve the aims.”
On the next day, three scholars were arrested for “terror propaganda” after reading out a declaration criticizing the government’s military operations in southeastern Turkey. An Istanbul court said the statement amounted to “tacit approval” of the PKK’s actions.
A British professor who came to show support for the detained academics was also arrested and eventually deported — apparently, he wrote, because he carried invitations to a Newroz celebration hosted by HDP, a pro-Kurdish political party.
The HDP is another thorn in the government’s side that finds itself frequently accused of terror propaganda. The party became the third-largest in parliament last year at the expense of Erdogan’s ruling AKP, but now its legislators could be arrested and charged if the government succeeds in lifting their legislative immunity.
But the government’s liberal use of the term “terrorism” has even more serious consequences than repressing freedom of expression.
Last summer, a ceasefire between the state and the PKK broke down, resuming a conflict that has killed over 40,000 in three decades and leaving the two-year-old peace process in tatters. Since then, escalating violence in Turkey’s southeast has killed hundreds.
As the fighting moved into the region’s urban centers, local residents found themselves in the crossfire. Human rights organizations have counted at least 310 civilian deaths, but ask the government and you’ll hear that only terrorists have been targeted.
Take the example of Cizre, a town of 120,000 sitting on the banks of the river Tigris, which saw some of the worst clashes. In January, hundreds became trapped in basements as apartment blocks collapsed under heavy shelling by security forces. When Kurdish politicians claimed that the state was denying access to emergency medical care to those in the ruins, the government dismissed this as “terror propaganda.” The cellars, officials said, were PKK bases.
Weeks later, when the curfew in the town was lifted, residents returned to find dozens had burned to death. According to Ankara, security forces killed 600 PKK terrorists in Cizre. The government made no mention of civilian deaths, even though children, elderly women, local politicians and a journalist were among those killed.
Labeling civilian casualties as terrorists designates them as legitimate targets, minimizing any chance of the state being held to account for their deaths — and reinforcing the Kurds’ long-held belief that in the fight against the PKK, the security services are above the law.
But besides endangering lives and rights, the government’s anti-terrorism campaign appears to be woefully ineffective: far from reining in terror, it may produce yet more. Last month, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a PKK splinter group, killed 28 in a bombing in Ankara. The same group claimed last Sunday’s deadly suicide attack in Ankara. Both attacks, it announced, were “revenge” for Cizre.