Kurds Threaten to Set Up Autonomous Parliament in Turkey

(Bloomberg) -

Turkish Kurdish lawmakers threatened to set up an autonomous parliament after lawmakers took action to put dozens of their colleagues on trial.

A parliamentary committee agreed late Monday to lift the legal immunity of legislators from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, including co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas, on charges of supporting the armed Kurdish separatist group PKK. Demirtas said lawmakers from his HDP party wouldn’t agree to be tried in government courts.

“This parliament is not your property and we will teach you that, if the people wish, they can establish more than one parliament,” he told the legislature on Tuesday. The committee’s decision, which followed fist-fights in the assembly, must be approved by the full plenum to become law.

The threat of emboldened separatist aims has haunted Turkey as it watches Kurds in neighboring Syria and Iraq gain power and territory. At the same time, it has pressed to prosecute Kurdish lawmakers at the risk of intensifying its decades-old confrontation with the PKK, which reignited in July after a three-year lull.

Violence surged after the HDP won parliamentary representation for the first time in June, briefly depriving the AK Party co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of its single-party majority. The government has vowed to crush the PKK, classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and European Union. It says the military has killed more than 5,000 militants and that 400 security personnel and up to 200 civilians have also died in the renewed fighting.

On the eve of the parliamentary committee vote, PKK fighters bombed a Turkish army unit in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast.

“Every day, we are attending funerals of the martyrs, the people have been openly asking, ‘Why are you not lifting their immunity?’” Cemil Cicek, a senior member of the ruling AK Party and former parliament speaker, said in an interview hours before Monday’s vote.

Two opposition parties, the MHP and CHP, backed the AK Party’s motion to lift the legislators’ immunity, amid a mounting nationalist backlash over the rekindled PKK violence. Kurdish lawmakers chanted support for jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan as they left parliament and exchanged punches with AK Party members.

The struggle with Kurdish separatists has left tens of thousands dead and cost Turkey about $400 billion since 1984, according to government estimates. The HDP doesn’t deny connections to the PKK but rejects accusations that the party advocates armed conflict.

At least 367 of parliament’s 550 members must support the committee’s decision to formally strip the lawmakers of their immunity. If the government can’t muster enough backing, Erdogan can order a national referendum on the issue with the support of at least 330 deputies.

AK Party plans to start the parliamentary debate on May 16 and hopes to wind up the voting two days later, lawmaker Bulent Turan told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday.

HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan warned that attempts to drive pro-Kurdish representatives out of parliament risked further violence.

“This issue has become an open political wound and it will most probably be infected,” Paylan said by phone on Tuesday. The HDP will start door-to-door visits to rally support against the government’s policies, he said, including Erdogan’s goal of widening his powers by introducing a presidential system.