Friday, June 30, 2006

Outspoken Kurd Is Living on the Edge in Turkey

By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer
May 30, 2006

BATMAN, Turkey — Huseyin Kalkan, the mayor of Batman, pointed to the bullet holes in the pale-yellow wall of his office, little indentations just above the framed photograph of a lavender cactus blossom.

"I'm always a target, especially when something goes wrong," Kalkan said.

Undoubtedly, Kalkan has many enemies, and these days, things are certainly going wrong.

The outspoken mayor of this oil town deep in southeastern Turkey is one of more than 50 Kurds elected to top municipal offices during a period of political and cultural opening in the restive region.

Now, however, he has become a lightning rod in a conflict that is threatening to take Turkey's Kurds back to dark, violent days of separatist terrorism and military repression.

Kalkan, 42, is seen by many Kurds as a champion of their rights, and by many Turks as a dangerous provocateur. That is precisely the kind of precarious position in which Kurdish politicians in this region frequently find themselves.

Unabashedly sympathetic to Kurdish nationalists, he has been shot at — by Turkish police, he contends — and faces a dozen criminal complaints filed by Turkish state prosecutors.

Among the charges pending against him are association with and support for a terrorist group, namely the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the guerrillas that since 1984 have fought for independence from Turkey. The PKK, which declared a cease-fire in 1999 but resumed attacks in 2004, is regarded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Kalkan, a wiry man with thick salt-and-pepper hair and mustache who speaks heavily accented Turkish, could face an 18-year prison sentence if he is found guilty.

Most recently, he was called in for questioning by state prosecutors after signing a petition with other Kurdish mayors in support of a Kurdish television channel that broadcasts from Denmark. Roj TV can be viewed by Kurds in Turkey with satellite dishes, and it is wildly popular.

The Turkish government, however, sees the channel as a mouthpiece for terrorists and has been lobbying the Danes to shut it down. Turkey has accused Roj TV of inciting violence during a recent wave of deadly protests in predominantly Kurdish cities and points to the channel's frequent airing of interviews with PKK rebels as evidence of its complicity with the outlawed group. Roj TV describes itself as independent and said it is merely covering the news.

Kalkan and 55 other mayors with the Democratic Society Party, the largest Kurdish political faction in Turkey , wrote to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen that closing Roj TV would harm "our efforts to build a pluralistic and democratic society in Turkey."

The mayors argued that Roj TV filled a void. Only recently have Turkish authorities, in their push to join the European Union, allowed limited Kurdish-language broadcasting on state or private TV; such broadcasts remain censored and restricted to a few hours a week.

A father of six and the son of a shoeshine man, Kalkan did a two-year stint in jail when he was 18, accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist group. He was eventually acquitted, he said. He was raised in Batman and went to high school with quite a few young men who went "to the mountains" to fight for the PKK.

Although Kalkan could be described as overly uncritical of the PKK, and doesn't hold the group responsible for violence, he does advocate a peaceful solution to Turkish-Kurdish differences. The era of armed struggle is over, he said.

He and his party have drafted a 20-point plan, with some demands that sound plausible, such as greater cultural rights and election rules that would make it easier for Kurdish parties to enter the national parliament.

There are other stipulations the Turkish government would find intolerable, such as an amnesty for PKK fighters and freedom for PKK commander Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured and jailed in 1999.

Kalkan acknowledges that there has been progress but warns of more bloodshed, greater agitation for independence and a new crop of PKK recruits if the government does not entertain additional Kurdish demands.

"Most Kurds are looking to Turkey and Europe," he said. "But if the status quo persists, they will start looking more and more to northern Iraq and will want to separate and unite with the Kurds of northern Iraq."

For Turkish leaders, that is a nightmare scenario. Fears of such separatism are the motive behind generations of government repression of Kurdish cultural identity.

As for his own troubles, Kalkan said they come in waves.

"When there is conflict and violence, the pressure mounts," he said. "From 1999 to 2005, we didn't have too many problems. Only in the last year and a half have we had trouble.

"The tension is growing once again."


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