Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of Turkey's parliament, was physically attacked by a group of lawmakers from President Erdogan's ruling AKP party, because he spoke out against Turkey's "ethnic cleansing" of the Kurds in Afrin, Syria. Pictured: Garo Paylan. (Image source: Armenian National Committee of America video screenshot)
Turkish prosecutors have filed a motion to strip an Armenian lawmaker of his parliamentary immunity over his outspoken criticism of the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Invoking Article 301 of the Turkish penal code -- which states that "insulting the Republic of Turkey, the Turkish nation or Turkish government institutions" is punishable by a prison sentence -- the prosecutor's office of Diyarbakir began proceedings against Garo Paylan, who was elected in 2015 to Turkey's Grand National Assembly as a member of the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).
Since that time, Paylan has been targeted by Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Last March, for example, Paylan and fellow HDP members were physically attacked by a group of AKP lawmakers for speaking out against Turkey's "ethnic cleansing" of the Kurds in Afrin, Syria. The following day, Paylan tweeted:
"Last night at the parliament, the AKP members tried to lynch us. They show their barbarism everywhere. We will continue to resist the fascists and we will win."
In May 2017, Erdogan watched as 12 of his guards beat up protestors in Washington, DC. Last July, all but seven indictments against the guards had quietly been dropped.
The assault on Paylan during a parliamentary session was not the first. In May 2016, after voting against a proposed bill to strip parliamentary immunity from some of his fellow MPs, Paylan was shoved, kicked and punched by angry AKP members calling him "Armenian bastard."
Istanbul's Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (IHD) condemned the attack in a letter to the president of the parliament. The letter read, in part:
"The physical assault by members of the Justice and Development Party against members of the Peoples' Democratic Party... which in fact left some members of the HDP injured, has thoroughly exposed the absence of the rule of law in this country.
"The perpetrators of the physical attacks, which are reminiscent of lynching, against HDP members of Parliament, have committed an egregious crime at a time when significant efforts are made to sideline the Peoples' Democratic Party from politics, to imprison the MPs, and to prevent the necessary conditions for the representation of a people.
"This crime is not only one of assault, battery, or injury. This is also a crime of racial hatred...
"This act of racism directed against Garo Paylan under the roof of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey also violates international conventions, signed by the Turkish state, which prohibit racism and discrimination. For instance, Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits discrimination in no uncertain terms. Moreover, the state of the Republic of Turkey has signed the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993, which obligate the signatory states to take precautions against racism."
A few months later, in January 2017, Paylan was censored and temporarily banned from parliamentary sessions after delivering a speech in which he said:
"Between 1913 and 1923, we [Turkey] lost four peoples: Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews were lost. They were either exposed to major massacres and genocides or subjected to population exchanges and exiles...
"We [Christians] used to account for 40 percent [of the country's population]. Now we are barely one out of a 1,000. It seems likely that something happened to us. I call it genocide. You can call it whatever you want.
"The Armenian people know very well what was done to them... I know very well what was done to my ancestors, my grandfather. To you, I am one of the 'leftovers of the sword' [a Turkish _expression_ often used to describe survivors of massacres against Christians]... to learn lessons... from the past, let's look at this together."
Paylan's statements were greeted by angry shouts from AKP members. The deputy speaker of the Assembly, Ahmet Aydin, warned Paylan to "watch out for [his] behavior and attitude, and stop uttering words that offend the Turkish nation."
The Turkish lawmakers then voted to ban Paylan from participating in the parliament for the next three sessions, and the section of his speech about the Armenian genocide was removed from the parliamentary minutes.
The hysteria over Paylan's speech, however, did not remain in the confines of the parliament. As a result of the address, and of an interview Paylan gave to an Armenian publication in Canada, a former university rector filed a criminal complaint against him. The office of the chief prosecutor in Ankara accepted the complaint, and by the end of 2017, the Turkish Justice Ministry gave permission to open a formal investigation into Paylan, in accordance with Article 301.
This kind of hostility to Armenians is widespread in Turkish society and, as is evident, protected by the government.
During a pro-Erdogan rally in Trabzon in October 2016, in another example, the crowd started chanting, "Armenian bastards cannot deter us." Erdogan and the ministers there did not intervene.
Paylan's lawyer then filed a criminal complaint against rally organizers and those who shouted the ethnic slurs. The complaint read in part:
"The fact that Erdogan stayed silent and did not stop the slogans has facilitated the targeting of Armenians... Paylan has seriously been impacted by these slogans and has been exposed to threats and insults by people encouraged by [them]."
Paylan has good reason to fear for his safety. In January 2007, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was shot and killed outside his newspaper's office in Istanbul. Dink, known for his outspokenness on the Armenian genocide, was prosecuted under Article 301, and received numerous death threats. It has been 12 years since Dink's murder, and the case has yet to be solved.
It has been three years since Paylan was verbally and physically abused by Turkish parliamentarians. Not only has nothing been done by Turkish authorities to prevent Paylan from experiencing the same fate as Dink, but prosecutors are stepping up their efforts to have his parliamentary immunity stripped, so that he can be tried, under Article 301, for "insulting Turkey."
This is a travesty of justice perpetrated by the very system charged with upholding justice.
On January 13, US President Donald Trump warned Turkey of possible economic sanctions if it attacks Kurds in Syria following the American withdrawal of troops from the war-torn country. This was apparently Trump's way of leveraging the Erdogan regime to comply with US wishes. Washington would do well to apply similar pressure to Ankara, a NATO member, to cease violating the human rights -- and endangering the lives -- of minorities and critics, such as Paylan.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist born and raised in Turkey. She is presently based in Washington D.C.