ISTANBUL, TURKEY - The head of the bar association in the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir was arrested early Tuesday. His arrest has sparked widespread condemnation among human rights groups, which are warning the move is part of a wider crackdown on Kurdish civil society and its legal political party ahead of the November general election.
Tahir Elci, the head of the Diyarbak?r Bar Association and a leading human rights lawyer, was arrested and jailed ahead of trial. He reportedly has been charged with terrorist propaganda, for saying that the PKK Kurdish rebel group "is not considered by Kurdish people as a terrorist organization.”
Elci is at the forefront of investigating alleged human rights abuses by security forces in the current crackdown on the PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state.
Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said Elci’s arrest is part of wider crackdown on Kurdish civil society and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or HDP.
"Well, I am completely appalled that Tahir Elci has been arrested in this way. What Tahir said falls firmly within the boundaries of free speech. He is one of the leading human rights lawyers in the country. And there is certainly a huge wave of detentions against political activists of the Kurdish party and including democratically elected mayors."
Turkey's government and the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have accused the HDP of being an extension of the PKK, a charge it denies.
The current crackdown comes ahead of a snap election set for November 1. The pro-Kurdish party’s success was able to enter parliament for the first time as the result of a June poll, ending the parliamentary majority Erdogan's AKP Party enjoyed for 13 years.
Relocating ballot boxes
Adding to concerns over the upcoming election, dozens of ballot boxes in the pro-Kurdish region are being relocated because of putative security concerns, despite the move being ruled illegal by country’s high election board.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University, said concerns over the November vote are growing.
"HDP is really playing the game in terms of parliamentary democracy. But there are huge doubts and suspicions ... the situation is tense," said Aktar.
Most opinion polls indicate the HDP again will make it into parliament and the AKP will narrowly fail to secure a parliamentary majority. But with the AKP and HDP as the chief rivals for Kurdish votes, observers predict tensions between the two parties will increase, along with concerns over the poll.