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Eight leaders of pro-Kurdish party arrested amid growing tension in Turkey

Eight leaders of pro-Kurdish party arrested amid growing tension in Turkey
Turkish police spray pepper gas Friday as they arrest demonstrators during an anti-government protest in Ankara triggered by the detention of lawmakers belonging to a pro-Kurdish political party. (Getty Images)

Turkish police arrested eight lawmakers from a pro-Kurdish political party in late-night raids that touched off angry demonstrations, prompted a stern rebuke from the European Union and heightened tensions between the government and  an increasingly disaffected Kurdish minority.

The arrests also might have triggered violence. Early Friday morning, hours after the raids, a car bomb exploded at a police building in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, not far from where the lawmakers were being held, killing eight people — two police officers and six civilians — and injuring more than 100.

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Automatic gunfire was heard afterward, and videos shared on social media showed residents fleeing for cover from the scene of the blast.

The lawmakers belong to the People's Democratic Party, or HDP, which Ankara has accused of being too close to the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. In addition to the eight lawmakers arrested, three more were held for questioning.

Plainclothes Turkish police arrest Kurdish member of parliament Sebahat Tuncel during an anti-government protest Friday in Diyarbakir.
Plainclothes Turkish police arrest Kurdish member of parliament Sebahat Tuncel during an anti-government protest Friday in Diyarbakir. (European Pressphoto Agency)

In Istanbul and Ankara, hundreds of protesters gathered at HDP offices, as police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.  Across the country, social media services, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp, were disrupted or outright blocked for much of the night following the arrests.

The arrests drew sharp words from the European Union, which Turkey has long aspired to join. Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark summoned Turkish diplomats in their countries to explain the arrests.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the arrests "call into question the basis for the sustainable relationship between EU and Turkey." Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, rejected the criticism, saying the EU had no right to give Turkey "lessons concerning the superiority of the law and democracy."

Among those arrested were the HDP's co-chairs, Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas. Demirtas, who often serves as the party's charismatic spokesperson, placed third in the country's first presidential elections in 2014 and has become an outspoken critic of the winner of that contest, current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Authorities are blaming the car bombing on the PKK, with whom the government declared a cease-fire in 2013 after mediation by several of the HDP lawmakers now under detention. The cease-fire collapsed in July 2015, and the resulting conflict has killed more than 2,272 people, including hundreds of civilians, and displaced around 400,000 residents from cities such as Diyarbakir, where the fighting between the PKK and Ankara has reduced much of the city center to rubble.

The conflict has played out repeatedly in parliament, with fistfights breaking out in the chamber. Lawmakers are granted immunity from prosecution, but in May, Erdogan's ruling AK Party, with support from a nationalist opposition party, lifted immunity for more than 100 lawmakers, including all but one of HDP's 59 parliament members.

"My nation does not want to see guilty lawmakers in this country's parliament," Erdogan said at the time. "Above all, it does not want to see those supported by the separatist terror group in parliament."

Prosecutors since have brought charges of terrorism against scores of HDP lawmakers, and those detained Thursday night had been asked to give statements to authorities concerning the charges against them.

The 11 lawmakers were obligated to provide statements to authorities, and when they failed to do so, "the only means left is to summon them by force," Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Friday.

In a statement by Demirtas and Yuksekdag put out by the HDP, the party refused to accept the lifting of immunity. "We are, at present, a member of parliament who carries immunity. … We refuse to be tried by a system that rushes to button its button-less robes while reputation of justice is trampled underfoot."

"This is a sword hanging over every deputy's head," said Ertugrul Kurkcu, an HDP member facing 15 indictments, including terror charges, who is in Bulgaria observing elections as part of an official Turkish delegation. He added, "In the government's paranoia, every opponent that voices support to the Kurdish people is potentially a terrorist. This is a way of thinking that belongs in the Middle Ages."

Demirtas is facing charges of support for the PKK over remarks he gave in December at a meeting of a leftist political group that praised the "rightful resistance" of Kurds against the Turkish state.

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"There will be the reality of Kurdistan in the next century. Perhaps Kurds will have their own independent state, the federal state, and cantons and autonomous regions as well," Demirtas said in that speech.

Among the lawmakers detained Thursday was Leyla Zana, who spent a decade in prison the last time a pro-Kurdish party was dismantled in Turkey, in 1994. "This is the same thing that Turkey tried before, actually for decades, but never came to an end and never finished the problem," said Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for Al-Monitor and the Turkish daily Hurriyet.

Akyol said Turkey had tried to address the Kurdish conflict by political means when it agreed to the cease-fire in 2013, "but now it has reverted back to the same old hawkishness we saw in the 1990s."

Farooq is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the European Union.

This article was originally published at 9:40 a.m.

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