Hundreds of officials from Turkey's pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), have been arrested in yet another round of police operations targeting opponents of the government. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.
There was little attempt by Turkish security forces to hide their intent. In Istanbul, counter-terrorism police entered HDP's local headquarters and turned over desks and boxes of books, leaving furniture and papers strewn across the floors, in what the government described as a "counter terror probe." On the walls, Geldik Yoktunuz ("we came but you weren't here") and Yine Gelecegiz ("we will be back") was spray-painted onto the walls alongside the crescent and star of the Turkish flag.
According to HDP more than 290 party workers were arrested across the country on Monday, including the party's Istanbul provincial chairman Aysel Güzel. The sweep was just the latest round in a campaign that has seen pro-Kurdish members of parliament, writers, and elected city mayors imprisoned on charges of sympathizing with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
On Tuesday, arrest warrants were issued for a further eight HDP members of parliament. Of the party's 59 members of parliament just 10 are not either in detention, wanted by police, or under investigation.
The raids came after the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) - a radical splinter of the PKK - claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack on a police bus outside Besiktas football stadium that left 44 dead, including seven civilians. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas condemned the attack, which he referred to as an "atrocious massacre," in an official statement issued from Edirne prison.
"We condemned the attack in the strongest terms possible, but the minister of interior [Süleyman Soylu] was out for revenge," said Hisyar Ozsoy, HDP's deputy co-chairman.
Scapegoating the HDP?
"The person responsible for the security of all citizens of Turkey is the Minister of Interior, and how many of these attacks have there been now? We have proposed that parliament establish independent commissions to investigate these attacks because it's obvious that those responsible have been failing to protect the people," he told DW. "The Interior Minister is trying to cover up his own failure and channel social anger onto HDP - it's scapegoating."
The government, meanwhile, claims the arrests are part of an ongoing anti-terrorism investigation.
"There are always police around here and around HDP's building, these arrests are not a surprise," said one resident of Tarlabaşı, the Istanbul neighborhood where HDP's headquarters in the city is located, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
"They are a Kurdish party and it's been clear for a long time now, since last year, that eventually the government would do something to them especially with the military in the south-east and all these attacks."
Those arrested on Monday were mostly local HDP officials, the party said. Much of the party's senior leadership was arrested in dawn police raids in early November, when party chairs Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were arrested alongside well-known pro-Kurdish politicians Sebahat Tuncel and Sırrı Süreyya Önder. Önder was later released on bail.
Acting like the mafia
In response to the November raids, HDP announced that its MPs would no longer take their seats in Turkey's parliament. The state has also targeted the party in its heartlands, Turkey's south-eastern majority Kurdish provinces. A total of 38 elected city mayors have been detained in police raids and replaced with state administrators appointed by the Ministry of Interior.
Since a failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey has been in a state of emergency and police have conducted a largescale crackdown on government opponents including Kurdish political groups and suspected supporters of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government believes orchestrated the coup.
"The state is acting like a gang," HDP's Ozsoy said. "States often act like gangs but they need to use violence within the limits of the law, now there is a state of emergency and the rule of law is not really in place, so the Turkish state isn't using violence within the law and there's no difference between its methods and those of a Mafia."
The party claims that in addition to the targeting of its leadership and municipal councils, as many as 2,500 party members have been detained in police sweeps. More than half of the officials of HDP's sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), are currently imprisoned.
"The state is closing down the legitimate means for people to express grievances and demands," Ozsoy said. "They don't even talk about peace anymore."
Relations between Turkey's Kurds and the central government have been fraught since the breakdown of a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state in 2015, and the subsequent ongoing campaign by the Turkish army in the predominantly Kurdish south-east.
Mehmet Alkış, a specialist on Kurdish politics in the Middle East region at Istanbul's Marmara University, is not optimistic about the prospects of a return to a political peace process any time soon. "When the last peace process started HDP functioned as a moderate actor between the state and the PKK; a channel for the demands of Kurds in Turkey in the formal political sphere," Alkış told DW.
"Of course after the peace process collapsed last year, and especially since the July coup attempt, HDP has found itself in a difficult position. A group may emerge within HDP as an acceptable alternative for Kurdish politics in the long term," Alkış said, "but it's not easy to see a return to the peace process in the short term in this environment."