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Germany 'toes Turkish line' on PKK images

September 20, 2017

The German Interior Ministry has chided Cologne police for being too tolerant of Kurdish PKK images displayed at a festival in the city. The government also now wants to amend its list of banned symbols.

Deutschland Köln | 25. Internationales Kurdisches Kulturfestival in der in der Deutzer Werft
Image: Imago/Future image/C. Hardt

The German Interior Ministry has said it wants to expand its list of banned symbols related to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) following a spat with the Cologne police force.

The decision has attracted more criticism from German Kurdish community groups that the German government is being cowed by Turkey.

Cologne police filed charges against one person and confiscated a banner showing Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who has been in prison in Turkey since 1999, on a yellow background during a Kurdish cultural festival in the city on Saturday.

But the police took no action against hundreds of other images of Ocalan being displayed at the festival, attended by over 13,000 people, on the grounds that they did not include a yellow background and were therefore not on the list of banned images that the German government published in March.

The PKK has been defined as a terrorist organization in Germany since 1993, but Ocalan has since called for a political solution to Turkey's conflict with the Kurds, and many Kurdish people support the party. The PKK's demand for an independent Kurdistan has been altered to Kurdish autonomy in the Kurdish region, which covers parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Kurds protest against Erdogan in Germany
The Ocalan flags have been displayed at other events in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner

Banned pictures

On Monday, the German Interior Ministry distanced itself from the Cologne police's lenience. "For us it's clear that what happened in principle does not correspond to the ban on symbols," said ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth. All images of Ocalan were banned "in general," he added.

The Interior Ministry's list includes the caveat that "similar images" were also banned, but the Cologne police defended its decisions – a spokesman told public broadcaster WDR: "We consulted with Cologne state prosecution about our procedures and the legal assessments advance."

Mako Qocgiri, spokesman for Civaka Azad, a Kurdish community center for public communications in Germany, thinks the Interior Ministry's whole argument was "ridiculous."

Toeing the Turkish line

Some German media outlets, such as WDR, wondered why the Interior Ministry had chosen to make its statement now, given that Ocalan images have been seen at Kurdish demonstrations in Germany before.

For his part, Qocgiri thought it was no accident that the German government had promised to revise its list of banned Kurdish images just a day after the German ambassador to Turkey had been summoned to the Turkish foreign ministry in Ankara over Saturday's Kurdish event.

Johannes Dimroth
Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Dimroth said that the list of banned images would be reviewedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

Ankara went on to issue a statement condemning the fact that Germany allowed PKK supporters to show "terrorist propaganda."

"The Turkish media was already agitating against the event before the festival, with headlines like: Germany was allowing terrorist supporters to gather," said Qocgiri. "And the fact that the Interior Ministry now wants to extend the flag ban is a direct response to that – it's a direct compromise with the Turkish state."

Many Kurds in Germany feel that the government always bows to Turkish pressure when it comes to them, but takes a tougher stance when it comes to other sources of tension, such as the German journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. "That's a problem for us, because we get the feeling they're trying to straighten out their relationship at our expense," said Qocgiri.

Germany does support some Kurdish groups – Germany has armed the Peshmerga militia currently fighting the "Islamic State" in Iraq, for instance – but, unlike the US, does not provide military aid to those such as the YPG, or People's Protection Units, fighting in Syria.

The international Kurdish cultural festival has been running annually for some 25 years – with traditional Kurdish music and dance performances. But, as Qocgiri explained, "when Kurds come together it always also has a political character – with calls for freedom for Ocalan and autonomy for the Kurds. There were a lot of Ocalan flags at the festival."

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight