On November 30, 2021, TNGO Director of Investigative Journalism Margaux Seigneur went to the headquarters of the People’s Democratic Party (in Turkish: Halkların Demokratik Partisi-HDP) in Ankara. Accompanied by a translator and a photographer, she approached the highly secured building. Indeed, the offices of the HDP are regularly the target of deadly terrorist attacks. The most recent tragedy occurred on 17 June 2021 in Izmir where Deniz Poyraz lost her life after being tortured in the HDP building by a supporter of the far-right organization “Grey Wolves”.
Indeed, it was in a rather tense context that they entered the HDP compound. As the heavy steel doors closed behind us, the team was escorted by the security services. After passing through many doors that could be opened with codes that only a few people know, one last door opened. Behind it, stood Ebru Günay.
Who is Ebru Günay?
Elected deputy for Mardin in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in June 2018 on behalf of the HDP party, Ebru Günay is currently its spokeswoman. Politician and lawyer, she was notably involved in the defense of Abdullah Öcalan. Also called Apo, the latter is currently held as a political prisoner for being one of the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ebru Günay was arrested in 2009 due to an investigation into the activities of the Kurdistan Communities Union and prosecutes during the KCK trial in which the defendants were accused of supporting terrorist organizations including the PKK. She was released after five years in April 2014. In September 2019, the Turkish Supreme Appeals court confirmed her acquittal in the KCK main case in which more than 150 people were prosecuted.
Ebru Günay is notably known and recognized for her strong opposition to the ruling party and her determination to bring justice to the victims of human rights abuses. In September 2020 she took part in negotiations with European Union representatives regarding Turkey’s human rights situation. In June 2021, following the Youtube revelations by the Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker, she demanded an investigation into the depopulation policy against the Kurds in the 1990s.
Margaux: Since 2015, waves of purges have targeted the HDP resulting in the imprisonment of its leaders. In 2018, more than 26,000 HDP activists and supporters were imprisonned and this year, the courts opened the way to ban the party due to it is alleged affiliation with the PKK. Is it possible to continue your political work when you have to face the constant arrest and pressure from the ruling party?
“You have summarised very well what has happened since 2015. Indeed, since June 7, 2015, when the HDP first entered the parliament, the party has shown its opposition to the current regime in which only one man rules the whole country. From there, there have been violent repercussions on the party.
The HDP is under a lot of pressure both politically and legally, with many attempts to bring charges against us before the courts. But has this pressure stopped the work of the HDP? Absolutely not! Because the HDP is the party that speaks for the majority of Turkey. It is the party that is the key to defending the rights of women and other minorities that suffer in Turkey we know today. So yes, the HDP is in a very difficult and sensitive position, especially with the Kobane trial in November. But the HDP has not stopped working. This shows that the party which is currently governing; the AKP, cannot finish us politically. Therefore, they are attacking us by all other means they have, including the courts, to hope to be successful in defeating us.”
M: When we refer to democracy, we are actually referring to the separation of powers; the separation between justice and politics. Does the fact that the AKP is using the justice system to arrest the HDP’s political figures show the failure of Turkish democracy?
“I can answer this question as a lawyer. Indeed, it can be said that Turkey is becoming more and more of an authoritarian regime. In trials, the judges, the decision-makers, the members of the court etc. are not independent. There is no independence of the judiciary in Turkey. The government sends many judiciary members. Others are strategically placed according to their political affiliation. There is no neutrality or separation between politics and justice. On the contrary, politics uses the judiciary to eliminate the opposition. The judiciary has become an instrument in the service of the politics.”
M: You are indeed a lawyer by profession, you also took part in negotiation with representatives of the EU regarding the human rights situation in Turkey. In view of these elements, what is your opinion on the pressure exerted on the HDP? Are these political operations constitutional and legitimate?
“What is certain is that the status of democracy is no longer protected in Turkey, but above all is no longer relevant. We can no longer speak of democracy in danger because it doesn’t exist anymore. When we look at the background of the country, we see a Turkey that has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, we see a government that uses justice as a weapon of intimidation against the opposition. So we cannot talk about a democracy that is advancing, but about a catastrophic regression in terms of human rights, social rights, the economy, institutions, etc. “
M: Women are massacred, journalists, intellectuals, and Kurds are threatened and imprisoned. The LGBTQ+ community is prosecuted, and the Turkish economy is dying. This is clearly a record of the Turkish president’s failure. Yet, do you think the majority of the people living in Turkey are ready to vote in favor of a political change and so against the AKP?
“We are in a situation where every day two or three women are killed. The problem of feminicide is very real and extremely worrying. We are in a situation where killers are protected by the government. Rapists are often released by the authorities, who prefer to punish women. Kurds are imprisoned and oppressed. They cannot speak their mother tongues, they are massacred because of their identities. Kurdish women are raped with impunity. When we talk about society in general, people don’t have money to buy a decent life. We are talking about survival. The economy is in a catastrophic situation. So yes, I think we will see a change on election day. There is a real disconnect between the government living in a palace and the people surviving in miserable conditions. When people witness the degradation of their living conditions, I think they are ready for a change.”
M: In a recent declaration of yours, you stated that the HDP is the party representing the diversity within Turkey (women, Kurds, LGBTQ+, refugees, etc.) How is it possible to speak on behalf of all these voices that are so different from each other?
“We want the HDP to remain a historical party, but also a party which has great influence in the decision-making process in the parliament. We are doing everything to evolve with the times and to take into account the diversification that our society offers us. It is a party that wants to bring together all the diversity of the country and Kurdistan. One day we will be the governing party because we deeply respect the difference and plurality of society.
We have a great strength because the HDP combines the power of the socialist and the Kurdish liberation movement. This represents a great unifying force. The HDP is a political party which aims to be open to all. There are conservatives, Syrians, liberals, Kurds, young people etc. In the parliament, we are the party that most represents the diversity of Turkish society, as well as the party with the most women. Thus, given this diversity and strength of representation, the HDP is ready to be elected and govern.
How is it possible to speak on behalf of all these different voices? What is common to all minorities is their desire to have their rights equal to those of others and to have their status recognised and protected. Our job is to represent them, stand for their rights and condemn the violence they suffer. You can see us as a kind of platform that voices the suffering of minorities and protects them with our legal service that provides lawyers and legal advice when needed.”
M: Ebru Günay, as a woman and as a Kurd, was it difficult to assert yourself in the Turkish parliament? Did you face any sexist practices?
“Yes, of course, I had to face many difficulties due to my gender but also my identity. The AKP and MHP MP’s don’t mind cutting us off in the middle of a statement, taking the floor even if it’s our turn to speak etc. They try to crush us.
What is interesting is that the parliament represents the people and we can see that the disrespectful and anti-democratic behaviour in the big assembly reflects what is going on in Turkish society. Minorities are repressed, women’s voices do not count and the political majority dictates with an iron fist the rest of the population.
But at the same time, this does not discourage us because we are well aware that a large part of Turkey sees the HDP as the party of hope in the parliament. And so on the contrary, every time they try to silence us, we speak up. We have a resilience that goes beyond the intimidation mechanisms of the AKP. We speak loudly, we do not submit, we still defend ourselves and we will always defend ourselves.”
M: Can we consider that the Kurd’s question is a problem of division of people or of political division?
“The roots of the problem do not revolve around a division of peoples which would imply that Turks and Kurds cannot live together. The problem itself is purely political. Kurdish identity is not accepted. Many still say that Kurds do not exist. There is an absolute denial of the Kurdish identity itself. The language is not tolerated, and people are not allowed to speak their mother tongue. These are highly political issues. My statement of 27 October, to which you refer, is intended to bring hope that a dialogue will emerge to put an end to these identity violations. This issue of political division can only be resolved if there is a dialogue with arguments from both sides and if the voices of the oppressed are heard and respected instead of being silenced.
The efforts of the current party to subjugate the Kurdish people have catastrophic consequences. The Turkish government continues to bomb, imprison, torture, and rape.
It is high time to stop the policy of assimilation that the conservative government has been implementing for years. It is time for schools to teach their children Kurdish if they wish. It is time for people to express their culture and be publicly proud of it. It is high time that the government stopped its futile attempts to control minorities.
For example, in my constituency in Mardin, the Ministry of Interior sent a person to govern us. This conservative employee is unable to govern the people of Mardin. Not only does he not understand the subtlety of our identity, but more importantly he refuses to listen to us. The result is that the population of Mardin does not accept to submit to the assimilation policies and thus, categorically refuses to obey the AKP power. So there is a real problem with democracy where the identity of the people is not listened to. Once again, this issue of the division of the peoples instrumentalised by the AKP in Turkey will not be solved as long as democracy is absent in Turkey and Kurdistan.
M: HDP has faced death, terrorists as well as political and judicial attacks. Could dialogue be enough in this context of survival and constant fight against the ruling party? Indeed, the HDP aims to establish a Democratic Republic. How is this concretely possible when you are a victim of the authoritarian excesses of the current regime?
“What will bring about a real dialogue is the people and their confidence in us. But we are not just going to wait for a dialogue to begin. On the contrary, we must provoke it. We must continue to meet people from all walks of life in all cities of Turkey and Kurdistan to hear their voices. We are going to meet the people so that they come together to communicate and talk about the problems they are facing. Throughout the summer we have been campaigning to promote the values of the HDP. For a long time, the HDP was only perceived as the Kurdish party whereas we are in all the cities of Turkey and not only Kurdistan. We are working so that everyone can identify with the values that the HDP stands for. We also work a lot in the Parliament to make their voice heard and to fight to make it resonate.
We are HDP and we are everywhere !
For example, on the occasion of the 25th of November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women), we were with the women to protest against the violence they suffer. For us, once again, we wanted to be present to support and strengthen the struggles of minorities so that a dialogue is possible. It is about creating dialogue, reaching out to the oppressed and making sure that their voices are heard. If through the visibility of the HDP we can contribute to a greater resonance, then our goal of dialogue is successful.”
M: Do you think that the pressure received by the HDP is institutionalized?
“They certainly are both in the political institutions, in the military institutions, and in the judicial ones. The current government is trying in every possible way to put an end to the HDP by closing it down. The government is trying to eradicate our party so that people turn away from us. But the problem is that the AKP has nothing in hand to finish with us both in the judicial and political aspects. They fail to have anything against us.
During the Kobané fights, many countries came with the Kurds to fight the EI except Turkey which refused to go and support the Kurdish side.
On the 5th of October just before the beginning of the fight, Erdogan made a speech saying that Kobane has almost fallen. On the 6th, 7th, and 8th the Kobane event takes place. Kurds, intellectuals, and democrats come out in the streets to protest against the violation of democratic rights. Once again, to de-legitimize the HDP, the AKP announced that our party had incited the revolt by inciting people to protest in the streets. The police were sent to stop the protests. Dozens of people were massacred with impunity. Indeed, there was no trial or recognition of the murders committed by the state.
Another mechanism to try to shut down the HDP is the stubborn trials against the HDP. In this trial, the AKP’s argument is to indict the HDP’s political actions without further ado. It is also a way to show the people that the HDP’s policy is not the right one and deserves to be condemned by the courts. This again aims to portray a dirty image of our political party even if they cannot prove it. It is also a way to fight the HDP. Because the government can’t fight us on the level of political debate, they resort to the judicial voice. This shows the despair of the AKP.”
A Final Statement from Ebru Günay
“The HDP is oppressed by the current government and suffers from political and judicial pressure. There are always arrests of our leaders, deputies etc. The pressure is on but we have a strength of resistance that is not equal to any other party. If any of the other parties received 10 percent of the pressure we have been under for years, they would be over. With the history of the HDP, we continue to grow and strengthen. We are confident about the future.
The more the AKP tries to diminish us, the more we grow. The more the AKP tries to silence us, the louder we speak.”