All eyes on Diyarbakır as Öcalan to deliver critical Nevruz message
In this March 19, 2013 file photo, young artists display a traditional dance during Nevruz celebrations in the southeastern province of Batman. (Photo: AA, İbrahim Yakut)
Turkey is preparing to observe this year's Nevruz, a spring festival, amid raised expectations for the achievement of a solution to the country's long-standing terrorism problem, with the imprisoned leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, due to make a call on PKK terrorists to halt their decades-long violence, declare a cease-fire and withdraw from Turkey.
Nevruz, which heralds the arrival of spring, is celebrated across Central Asia, some parts of the Caucasus and the Middle East, but in Turkey it has symbolic importance for Kurds. Nevruz is not an official holiday in Turkey but has been celebrated officially over the past few years.
This year's Nevruz celebrations were organized jointly by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) with the slogan “Freedom for Öcalan, status for Kurds.” The celebrations already started in 18 provinces, including İstanbul, Adana and Mersin -- which all have a large Kurdish population -- on Sunday. However, the only Nevruz event that will take place on the specific day will be in Diyarbakır on Thursday.
The importance of this year's Nevruz celebrations result from the fact that they take place at a time when Turkish state authorities have been holding peace negotiations with Öcalan since last October, with the aim of achieving a timetable for the disarmament of PKK terrorists. Öcalan has significant influence among PKK members and supporters, and the state believes that talks with the terrorist head will achieve their goals of a withdrawal of PKK militants from Turkey and, in the long run, full disarmament.
The BDP expects to draw as many as 3 million people to Diyarbakır for the Nevruz celebrations on Thursday, when Öcalan will make a “historic call.”
A third delegation from the BDP that traveled to the island of İmralı on Monday to meet with Öcalan to discuss the course of peace talks with the government, announced after returning from the island that Öcalan will make a historic call on March 21.
BDP Co-chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş, who was accompanied by deputies Pervin Buldan and Sırrı Süreyya Önder, called a press conference and read a statement from the terrorist head. In his message, Öcalan said he will make a "historic call" on March 21. He was probably referring to a call on PKK terrorists to declare a cease-fire.
"Our objective is the democratization of Turkey. Our work is under way to make a call to this end on March 21. The declaration I will prepare will be a historic one. It will have required elements for the political and military solution of the issue [PKK terrorism]. I want to solve the weapons issue quickly," read Öcalan's message. The PKK leader also made a call on political parties and Parliament to do "what falls on them" for the continuation of the peace process. He also said he expects to provide further details about the course of the process.
Listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the United States, the PKK has been waging a bloody campaign in Turkey's Southeast since 1984, killing more than 40,000 people in the conflict so far. Over the past years, Turkey has taken significant steps to expand the cultural and political rights of Kurds, who have suffered much from the Turkish state's harsh policies against them over the past decades.
Media reports said on Wednesday that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan read Öcalan's letter that will be made public on Thursday after Öcalan handed it to state officials on Tuesday. Erdoğan then called for a meeting with National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay and Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin to assess Öcalan's letter.
Öcalan's letter reportedly includes calls for a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem, a mutual halting of clashes, a permanent cease-fire from the PKK and the PKK's withdrawing its militants from within Turkish borders.
Öcalan's letter is expected to be read aloud by two BDP deputies, one male and one female, in Turkish and Kurdish during Thursday's celebrations in Diyarbakır.
On Wednesday, the area where Nevruz celebrations will be held in Diyarbakır's Bağlar district was decorated with yellow, red and green flags. Wood for the Nevruz bonfire was brought in by Diyarbakır Municipality workers to the area. High security measures have been taken in the area by the police. The BDP has also commissioned 5,000 individuals to maintain security in the celebration venue. Banners with Nevruz messages both in Kurdish and Turkish were hung around the area in addition to billboards.
The event organizing committee has invited 361 foreign parliamentarians, 123 diplomats, 174 political party representatives, 210 academics, 56 newspapers and TV channels and 117 journalists. The number of Turkish and international journalists who have received accreditation from the BDP to follow the event has exceeded 400.
Due to the high interest in Nevruz, hotels in Diyarbakır have had a 100 percent occupancy rate. Many guests who came to the province from outside were unable to find any accommodation.
On Wednesday, Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir called on locals to open the doors of their houses to guests and called on investors to build new hotels in the province.
Giant screens have been placed around the area where the celebrations will take place to make it easier for participants to follow the celebrations.
Meanwhile, there was some tension on Wednesday ahead of the Nevruz celebrations in some parts of the country and among some politicians.
In Ankara, police clashed with students at the Cebeci Campus of Ankara University when a group of students unfurled a banner that said “Freedom for Öcalan, status for Kurds.” Police used pepper spray and pressurized water to disperse the students, causing the hospitalization of many students.
BDP deputy Sırrı Sakık tweeted a message targeting Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli on Wednesday due to the MHP's opposition to the peace process.
“Bahçeli, who holds a rope in his hand, tells the government to hang Öcalan. From this hour on, you can only hang Öcalan's coat in a cloakroom.”
While campaigning for the 2007 general elections, Bahçeli asked Erdoğan, "Can't you afford to buy a lynch rope?" while speaking at a MHP rally in Erzurum and then threw a rope at the crowd.
Öcalan, captured in 1999 when the MHP was in Parliament as part of a coalition government, was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when the death penalty was abolished in Turkey in August 2002.
In the meantime, President Abdullah Gül on Wednesday released a message on the occasion of Nevruz, saying that Nevruz is being celebrated at a time when there are positive developments and hopes are refreshed for a better future. In this regard, he called on everyone to show the utmost sensitivity to stay away from extremism during celebrations.
“I hope Nevruz will be the harbinger of more beautiful days when peace, calm and happiness dominate. I hope the values in the essence of this special festival will embrace the whole society,” the president said in his message.
CHP says Nevruz should be official holiday
The Republican People's Party (CHP) has submitted a proposal to Parliament asking for Nevruz to be declared an official holiday. CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu said on Wednesday that there should be legal recognition of Nevruz by making it an official holiday.
“There is a change of attitude every year. Last year, they [the police] were delivering [pepper] gas [to the people celebrating Nevruz], this year, they say they will deliver sweets. There is no guarantee that they will not deliver clubs next year,” Tanrıkulu said.