Beloved Mayor Jailed by Islamist Turkey -- Again -- for His Kindness to Christians, Jews, and Others
"You know, he is in prison now. He is really not doing well. His daughter was visiting, and he was coughing blood."
"He asked for you by name, you know.”
"He asked his daughter to find you. He is asking you to save him. Please help him."
“I will do everything possible,” I responded. I had no qualms about saying “Here I am.” I only had one question -- what took them so long?
And then I slipped back into the darkness, carrying in my mind the clandestine message I received in the middle of the night. The next week-and-a-half turned into a blur, as I worked feverishly in my capacity as a lawyer and human rights advocate, and as it turned out, also a detective and journalist, piecing together bits of scattered information to present a portrait of someone I have never met to everyone I could ask to intervene on his behalf, needing to save him from imminent death in a Turkish prison.
My attempt to bring together the different parts of Abdullah Demirbas’ life and to introduce this figure -- beloved in his own town but virtually unknown in the West to elected officials, media, activists, and my own social circles -- turned into an international quest, from the streets of Sur in Diyarbakir to the Vatican, Israel, and Armenia.
After battling through language constraints, disparate pieces of information, well-hidden articles, and voices of activists from every imaginable background, I have come away with an understanding of a peacebuilder and interfaith activist who should be a hero of both the right and the left in this country. But despite a compelling New York Times profile, his story is only now coming out of the shadows as part of a rescue mission.
Abdullah Demirbas is the former mayor of the municipality of Sur in Diyarbakir (Southeastern Turkey, also known as "Northern Kurdistan"), and remains a central and beloved figure in his community. He grew up in Sur facing intolerance of his Kurdish culture, and eventually became a vocal fighter for the preservation and protection of Kurdish language. He wished not only to prevent the language of his family from disappearing forever, but also to ease access to education and literature through translation efforts. He developed a project that translates Turkish books into a variety of languages, including Kurdish, English -- and even Hebrew.
He has been a staunch defender of minority rights in Turkey -- he was the first Turkish public official to apologize to the Armenian community, albeit for the role of the Kurds in the murder of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. (Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the genocide in any form.) Demirbas reached out to every minority group, from the Armenians to the Chaldeans.
Notably, Demirbas offered help to the Chaldean Catholic vicar in Diyarbakir, a man named Francois Yakan. Yakan runs an organization called Ka-Der.
Ka-Der's mission? To assist Iraqi Christian refugees in Turkey.
Demirbas' other work promoting Kurdish culture through the dissemination of literature had always aroused the ire of Turkey's increasingly repressive Islamist government. Was this aid given to Christians the final straw?
Abdullah Demirbas was forcibly removed from office by the Ministry of Interior in 2007 and thrown in jail. This act is just one of the scores of charges that the Erdogan regime -- a regime which has managed to curry favor and close relations with the Obama administration -- has since brought against national treasure Demirbas.
He is now terribly sick. And I was told he asked for me by name for help.
Mr. Demirbas suffers from a hereditary form of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which causes blood clotting and can be life-threatening if left without treatment. He had no access to medical care, and his condition got progressively worse.
He was jailed for his attempts to sustain the Kurdish language. He was jailed for his other cultural preservation projects: restoring a synagogue, Armenian churches, Yezidi shrines, and other minority religious sites in his municipality.
Under pressure from local minority groups as well as from international NGOs, Mr. Demirbas was at last released on humanitarian grounds in 2014, and eventually reinstated as mayor. In fact, the European Union gave him a grant to continue his activities. And after two years of legal battles, he succeeded in having all the charges dropped.
Despite the unapproving attitude of the Erdogan administration, Mr. Demirbas got right back to his community-building activities. In 2014, he brought a group of Christians and Muslims to the Vatican for an interfaith group visit with Pope Francis.
When His Holiness visited Turkey later that year, the pontiff asked Mr. Demirbas to accompany him.
Maintaining a close relationship with the Vatican, Mr. Demirbas returned there in May this year. He was accompanied by Hamdi Ulukaya -- the founder of Chobani yogurt. Ulukaya resides in New York, and recently gained acclaim for hiring thousands of refugees to work for his company.
Mr. Demirbas remained active in politics. He was quoted in various news sources about the Turkish election in June, which proved pivotal for the Kurdish party HDP.
Despite the ominous signs of conflict between the PKK and Erdogan’s administration, Mr. Demirbas remained persistent in his peaceful approach. Over the summer, he worked on building sister-city relationships with various countries, including Israel and Armenia.
Mr. Demirbas is a strong advocate of building stronger relationships between the Kurdish community and Israel, a stand that brings him distinction from the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern community leaders at the forefront of news coverage today. Demirbas visited Tel Aviv University and Jerusalem's Hebrew University, attending seminars organized by Professor Ofra Bengio, an expert on Kurdish issues and the Middle East.
In Jerusalem, he spoke about his plan to rebuild the synagogue in Diyarbakir as part of the cultural preservation project that proved to be controversial several years ago.
After his visit to Israel, Mr. Demirbas traveled to Armenia, where he participated in the sixth annual Pan-Armenian games, and he met the Armenian president.
Most recently, he completed a memorial park dedicated to the victims of Ottoman atrocities. Although the park is meant to commemorate all the victims who have died, regardless of ethnicity and religion, it has been widely interpreted as a memorial to the Armenian genocide.
While Mr. Demirbas was traveling, I was working on spreading information about his activities in the United States, setting up potential speaking engagements about his cultural preservation and interfaith work. I was introduced to Mr. Demirbas over the summer, and corresponded with him about his project and the plan to rebuild the synagogue. I thought that as extremism and persecution of minorities is proliferating across the Middle East, Mr. Demirbas' example of courage would be a great learning experience and inspiration to both the Middle East and the West.
Unfortunately, his visions of restoration of buildings and relations -- and my plans for bringing him to the United States -- were curtailed when he was arrested on August 4 and thrown in jail once again.
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.