Beloved Mayor Jailed by Islamist Turkey -- Again -- for His Kindness to Christians, Jews, and Others

The reasons for Mr. Demirbas’ arrest were complex. His memorial park raised controversy, and was seen as a provocation by the administration that has repeatedly refused to recognize any role of Turkey in the killings of over a million of Armenians, much less consider it a genocide. Furthermore, Mr. Demirbas is an advocate of women’s rights.

But he believes -- he has indicated to me as much -- that his travels to Israel and Armenia brought about his downfall.

His arrest came as part of a wave of arrests of Kurdish officials and public figures, Erdogan’s spiteful reaction to the obstacle HDP presented to his goal of gaining 400 Parliament members. The arrests were also a way to punish the Kurdish population for the conflict with the PKK.

Arbitrary political detentions happen when the level of freedom in a country is sinking. I only learned about his arrest several weeks after it happened, simply because no information was available in English, with the exception of the translation of his daughter’s petition that appeared in an Armenian publication.

By that point, the conflict between the PKK and Erdogan’s administration was already raging. Most Kurdish news sources were blocked.

I received a clandestine message about Mr. Demirbas’ confinement with no access to medical care for his condition. His charges were undisclosed, but I was also told of rumors that his interfaith activities will lead to charges as serious as misallocation of public funding towards terrorism. This could potentially lead to a sentence of 450 years in prison.

Working hectically, I contacted his daughter, Berfin Ezgi Demirbas, and began searching for background about this situation to help spread awareness and spur an intervention. Kelly Stuart, a Columbia University playwright who had met Mr. Demirbas in person while researching a play in Diyarbakir, proved instrumental in putting together some of the open letters, information links, and her own interview with Mr. Demirbas that I could easily send to others. (Links here and here.)

Via Kaveh Taheri, an Iranian dissident in Turkey who works for the Oslo Times, I managed to get a human rights report on Mr. Demirbas’ situation disseminated. The link includes a health report and photographs, detailing the seriousness of Mr. Demirbas’ health condition.

His health continued to deteriorate, and the urgency of a humanitarian intervention became increasingly obvious. On October 5, the court ordered Mr. Demirbas released pending trial in order to receive treatment, after being taken to the hospital due to a risk of gangrene.

Currently he is receiving treatment at the Dicle University Hospital, but he cannot leave Diyarbakir, and his charges remain unknown.

Already, the prosecutor has twice tried to return Mr. Demirbas to prison.

Given his long record of activism that runs contrary to everything Erdogan’s administration stands for, having his charges dropped will be a challenge.

Despite life-threatening opposition, Mr. Demirbas persists in building bridges among assorted communities, and creating a sense of friendship and mutual support where before was only fear, distrust, and hopelessness.

I hope this article will find Mr. Demirbas in strong spirits and in much better health, and I hope that he, and the many silent voices like him that wait to be awakened by support and an opportunity to engage, will get this message:

We do not tolerate the persecution of friends and allies. We never leave a man behind.

Call your elected officials, the State Department, human rights organizations, and the media. Email them this article; share it on social media. Get this man free, healthy, and here to the United States to speak. Don't stop until that happens -- I won't.