Visiting Öcalan : Gov’t uses prison visit to PKK leader as leverage against BDP

19 February 2013 /AYDIN ALBAYRAK, ANKARA – Zaman

In a move to moderate the stance of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the government is using authorizations for who will be visiting the jailed leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, as leverage. Three deputies from the BDP are expected to visit Öcalan on İmralı Island in a couple of days as a follow-up on talks announced by government on paving the way for the disarming of the PKK. Yet the government and the BDP seem to be stuck in a tug-of-war over who will be participating in the three-member delegation to visit Öcalan and also who has the authority to make this decision.

“The Justice Ministry can only give a deputy permission to visit a prison, but it can’t decide who is to pay the visit. It’s our party that should decide, and our party has already made up its mind,” Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the BDP, told reporters on Monday, seemingly in reaction to statements by government officials that the government would be deciding who will visit Öcalan at İmralı. The government, fearing that the language some BDP deputies are using may provoke the Turkish public to protest the peace initiative, is also set in its attitude. “The Justice Ministry will decide on the issue,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ told reporters in reference to the prospective visit of a delegation of BDP deputies to Öcalan. “The ministry will inform the public when it has decided [on the names],” he added.

While the government seems to have disagreements with the BDP, the Ministry of Justice gave permission to Mehmet Öcalan, brother of the jailed PKK leader, to visit his brother. Mehmet, who last visited his brother on Jan. 14, set off by boat for the island of İmralı — where the PKK leader has been held in virtual isolation since his capture in 1999 — from the port of Gemlik early on Monday. “This is a family visit; it doesn’t have any political motivation,” he told the Anatolia news agency, refusing to comment on the peace talks aimed at ending the Kurdish conflict.

Last week, the BDP named three Kurdish politicians — Ahmet Türk, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Congress (DTK) and an independent deputy, BDP Co-Chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş and BDP parliamentary group deputy chairwoman Pervin Buldan — to join peace talks with the PKK, and thereby to visit Öcalan at İmralı. Another indication of the power struggle between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the BDP are the contradictory remarks voiced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Demirtaş. The names of BDP deputies to visit İmralı have already been submitted by the party to the Justice Ministry, said Erdoğan in Mardin on Sunday, adding that, upon return to Ankara the same night, they would finalize the names of people who would be visiting the jailed PKK leader. Contradictory remarks later came from Demirtaş, who told reporters in Diyarbakır that the list of names has not yet been submitted to the ministry, but that people from the party were waiting their instructions to do so.

At the outset of the government’s peace initiative, in January, a delegation including BDP deputy Ayla Akat Ata and prominent Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk first visited Öcalan. And the second visit has seemingly been delayed so far, apparently due to doubts of the government as to whether it could successfully carry out the peace initiative if the BDP deputies don’t adopt a discourse in accord with that of the government.

The BDP, on the other hand, is dissatisfied with the way the government is handling the issue of visits to Öcalan and believes party members should be able to visit the PKK leader like any other convict in prison, without being required to first receive special permission from the Justice Ministry. “If the deputies we want are not allowed to visit, then we will support [the initiative] from the outside,” said Demirtaş, and added to express their disappointment: “We are acting patiently so that the peace process moves along smoothly. The visits should normally be no cause of crisis.” Immediate reaction came from the government to Demirtaş’s comment. “It’s not correct to construct sentences with a conditional tone,” Bozdağ told reporters on Monday before attending a meeting at Justice and Development Party (AK Party) headquarters.

Although the peace initiative the governing AK Party has launched to resolve the Kurdish issue through negotiations with Öcalan has received the support of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the CHP also leveled criticism over the government’s handling of the peace process. “What the AKP [AK Party] is in search for, in both drawing up the new constitution and over the Kurdish issue, is not a democratic negotiation or reconciliation, but a crutch for its own ends,” Erdoğan Toprak, deputy chairman of the CHP, said on Monday.

Minor opposition parties outside of Parliament also criticized the government over the peace initiative. “The talks would only serve to intensify terror because in this way the terrorist organization obtains legitimacy, if not legality,” said Mustafa Kamalak, leader of the Felicity Party (SP), the party from which the AK Party originated, told reporters in Bursa’s town of İnegöl on Sunday. According to Kamalak, who maintained that the jailed leader of the PKK doesn’t have the power to rein in the group’s terrorist activities, the most significant result of the negotiations would be the legitimatization of the PKK.

The Grand Unity Party (BBP), a nationalist party with strong religious sensibilities, also has concerns. “This is not a path that should be taken,” remarked party leader Mustafa Destici at a meeting in Mersin on Sunday. Like Kamalak, he doesn’t believe the peace initiative would help end the almost 30-year-long conflict either. “On the contrary, this path [the government has taken] would lead Turkey into trouble in a short time,” he warned.