ISTANBUL - A wave of arrests against Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party is accompanying the country's military operation into Syria against the YPG Kurdish militia, which has been a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State terrorists. Analysts warn that the crackdown is broadening to include Turkey's wider civic society.
Seven elected mayors from the opposition HDP were removed from office and arrested on terrorism charges earlier in October. The arrests coincided with Operation Peace Spring, which Turkey launched three weeks ago in northeastern Syria against the YPG. Ankara designates the YPG as a terrorist organization linked to the group PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency inside southeastern Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the arrests, accusing the HDP of being the political wing of the PKK, a charge the party denies.
"How can 6 million people vote for a terrorist party?" said Ertugrul Kurkcu, the HDP honorary president.
"We only advocate a peaceful and political solution to the war against Kurds," he added.
More than a dozen party deputies have been stripped of immunity and jailed, including its former leader, Selahattin Demirtas. The HDP remains Turkey's third-largest political party.
The party claims thousands of its members and local officials are being detained, while many more have fled the country. Parliament is considering stripping a further 40 deputies of their immunity on terrorism charges, including the party's current leaders.
Rights groups say October's military operation in Syria is being used to further the increased HDP crackdown.
"The arrests of the HDP mayors have accelerated rapidly the current legal crackdown. Within the space of the few dates, seven mayors have been jailed," said senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"Turkish authorities will say they are individual cases," she added. "But when we examine the kind of evidence being used — very vague witness statements, social member postings — it looks like Ankara is going after the HDP. It seems like a politically motivated campaign and abuse of power."
State-appointed "trustees" replaced all the arrested mayors under special powers sanctioning the removal of the officials under criminal investigation. Ankara maintains that the judiciary is independent and the HDP prosecutions are legally correct.
The HDP is the parliamentary party that opposes the military operation against the YPG.
The main opposition CHP has strongly condemned the arrests of the HDP mayors.
"The dismissal of mayors and the appointment of trustees in their place is contrary to democracy," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP. "One of the first rules of justice is a democracy, respecting the will of the nation."
Kilicdaroglu's criticism is interpreted as an attempt to heal the divide within the HDP that opened over the parties' differing stances on the Syria military operation.
In local elections last March, the HDP's support for the CHP's Istanbul candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, was pivotal, according to analysts in regard to Erdogan's ruling party losing control of Turkey's largest and most prosperous city. The defeat ended the president's decades-long political control of the crucial city.
The HDP also captured most of the main cities in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish region. A legal crackdown on the HDP followed those electoral victories. "Every day, we get up a new wave of arrests in the country. Very little is heard in the mainstream media," said Kurkcu.
"But our electoral support is growing, and the anti-AKP sentiments are growing," he added, referring to the ruling party. "This movement is gaining momentum. People understand the value of the Istanbul [local] election experience. This is one of the reasons the ruling coalition is trying to take the HDP out of any political equation or any realignment of forces."
Opponents and critics of the Syrian operation also face legal troubles.
"What we've seen are lots of detentions of people," said Sinclair-Webb. "For social media posting critical of the government operation in Syria, people making anti-war statements, we've seen people detained, in some cases prosecuted."
Prominent rights activists and journalists have had their homes raided by police during the ongoing Syria operation. Some analysts warn that authorities are now seeking to broaden their control of society.
"They see this war, the ongoing assault, not only Syrian territory but as a formidable excuse and reason to close the civic society down even more," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. "We see a tightening of the enforcement against anything civic, civilians."
The HDP is bracing for further arrests and detentions. Kezban Yilmaz, the former mayor of the Kayar Pinar District in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, spoke to VOA before she was elected in March. She acknowledged that arrest is an occupational hazard when running for office.
"We will carry on from ... fellow mayors who have been taken by the state [arrested]," she said. "And if we are taken, there will be new people coming after us and continuing the work."
Last week, Yilmaz was arrested and taken into custody. A state-appointed trustee replaced her.