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Pro-Kurdish party defies ban on protests over removal of its mayor from office

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Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) is holding protests in the southeastern city of Hakkari against the removal of the city’s mayor amid a widespread ban on demonstrations imposed by governor’s offices in 10 provinces in the predominantly Kurdish region.

Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced on Monday the removal of Mehmet Sıddık Akış, the co-mayor of Hakkari from office, due to an ongoing investigation and a separate trial on terrorism-linked charges.

Hakkari Governor Ali Çelik was appointed as a trustee in Akış’s place.

Akış, who was elected with 48.9 percent of the vote in the March 31 elections, was also detained by law enforcement in the eastern province of Van on Monday morning.

Turkey became acquainted with the removal of democratically elected Kurdish mayors from office on terrorism accusations after the local elections in 2016 and 2019, but there were hopes that the government would not resort to such a step this time, given the significant public support afforded DEM Party mayors in the country’s southeast in the local elections.

As a result, the removal of Akış came as a disappointment to many, leading to protests and calls on the government from various segments of society to end the controversial practice and respect the will of the Kurdish people.

A delegation including DEM Party lawmakers Nevruz Uysal Aslan, Mehmet Zeki İrmez, Öznur Bartın, Rüştü Tiryaki, Onur Düşünmez, Gülcan Kaçmaz Sağyiğit and Zülküf Uçar has been holding a sit-in in front of Hakkari city hall since Monday under a heavy police presence. The lawmakers remained in the area overnight and tried to keep warm with blankets.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose leader, Özgür Özel, and İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu condemned the appointment of a trustee to the Hakkari Municipality, has also sent a delegation to the city in support of the DEM Party.

The CHP delegation joined the DEM Party officials including its co-chairperson, Tülay Hatimoğulları, as well as representatives from various civil society organizations in Hakkari on Tuesday in holding a march to protest Akış’s removal. The protestors confronted police officers who used pepper spray, plastic bullets and pressurized water to disperse the protestors, leading to several injuries.

DEM Party officials also held a demonstration in front of the Turkish parliament on Tuesday protesting the removal of the Hakkari mayor. The party’s Ankara provincial branch chair, Fatin Kanat, said what is being hijacked in Hakkari is the will of millions of Kurds and the demand for peace and democracy of all the peoples of Turkey. He called the ministry’s decision on Akış “null and void.”

The protests are taking place despite a ban on public demonstrations, protests and marches in the province for a period of 10 days announced by the Hakkari Municipality on Monday in an apparent bid to prevent protests against the removal of the city’s mayor.

A similar ban was also announced for nine other provinces in the predominantly Kurdish southeast including Diyarbakır, Ağrı, Batman and Van, where protests are likely to spread. The bans will be in effect for as long as four to 10 days.

On Monday DEM Party deputy group chairperson Gülistan Kılıç Koçyiğit said her party had decided to hold vigils in DEM Party-run municipalities in protest of the Interior Ministry’s decision to remove the Hakkari mayor and to defend the will of the people of Hakkari.

The ban on protests in the 10 predominantly Kurdish cities has been likened by many to an “unofficial state of emergency.”

Eight lawyers’ associations also held a protest at the İstanbul Courthouse on Tuesday. There was a heavy police presence in the area where protestors chanted slogans against the appointment of trustees.

Progressive Lawyers’ Association President Ezgi Önalan said the will of the Kurdish people has been systematically violated in Turkey and that Akış was removed from office despite the fact that the election authority allowed his candidacy.

She called on everyone to show solidarity with the ousted mayor.

Prominent human rights lawyer Eren Keskin, who was also in the area, criticized the İstanbul Bar Association for failing to support a statement issued by 28 bar associations across the country against the removal of the Hakkari mayor.

She said talk about normalization in the country that emerged following the March 31 elections does not apply to Kurds.

“Anyone who calls themselves a democrat, a socialist and even liberal should object to this usurpation of the people’s will,” Keskin said.

Meanwhile, Hakkari Co-mayor Viyan Tekçe told the Mezopotamya news agency that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government can easily hijack the will of the people by creating pretexts without the need for the presence of any criminal element.

She said the AKP was looking for a pretext to remove the mayor of Hakkari since its candidate was defeated in the elections.

“We will never accept this violation on the will of the people,” she said.

The March 31 elections produced surprising results for the AKP, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) emerged as the country’s leading party for the first time in decades, receiving 37.7 percent of the vote. The AKP’s nationwide support, however, stood at 35.4 percent, causing it to sustain its worst election defeat since its establishment in 2002.

Bahçeli congratulates interior minister

Meanwhile, far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who frequently calls for the closure of the DEM Party, accusing it of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), congratulated Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya for the ministry’s move to remove the Hakkari mayor.

“Thank God, the Hakkari mayor has been removed from office and taken into custody. The nomination of a terrorist in the March 31 elections and his participation in the elections is a scandal in itself,” said Bahçeli, an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Akış has not yet been convicted of any crime.

According to the ministry’s statement on Monday, he is being investigated on accusations of membership in a terrorist organization in a probe launched by the Hakkari Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office and also standing trial at the Hakkari 1st High Criminal Court on charges of running a terrorist organization, membership in a terrorist organization and disseminating terrorist propaganda for the PKK.

The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies.

In the appointment of trustees earlier, the Turkish government claimed the removal of the Kurdish mayors was a counterterrorism measure and that the elected mayors were funneling municipal funds to the PKK.

The mayors denied the accusations and described them as politically motivated.

Hakkari trustee spent millions for AKP candidate

Akış’s removal came shortly after he revealed that the governor of Hakkari, Çelik, who had previously been appointed to the province as a trustee in August 2023, spent TL 29.9 million ($890,477) for the election campaign of the AKP candidate, İsmet Ölmez, in the March 31 elections from the municipality’s budget and left a debt of TL 315 million ($9.6 million).

Akış, who held a news conference with Co-mayor Tekçe on May 14, accused Çelik of involvement in irregularities and favoritism in the city’s finances, tenders and recruitment of municipal staff during his short term as a trustee.

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