Factbox: The Kurdish struggle for rights and land

(Reuters) – Turkish forces are poised to advance into northeast Syria after U.S. troops began vacating the area, in an abrupt policy shift by President Donald Trump widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish militia allies.

Ankara says it plans to create a “safe zone” to resettle millions of refugees currently living on Turkish soil. This would then serve as a buffer against what Turkey sees as its main security threat in Syria – Kurdish YPG fighters who Ankara says are linked to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all have large Kurdish minorities seeking varying degrees of autonomy from central governments after decades of repression.

This is an overview of their status.

HISTORY

The Kurdish ethnic minority, mainly Sunni Muslims, speaks a language related to Farsi and lives mostly in a mountainous region straddling the borders of Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish nationalism stirred in the 1890s when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which imposed a settlement and colonial carve-up of Turkey after World War One, promised them independence.

Three years later, Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk tore up that accord. The Treaty of Lausanne, ratified in 1924, divided the Kurds among the new nations of the Middle East.

SYRIA

Before Syria’s popular uprising erupted in 2011, Kurds formed 8-10 percent of the population.

The Baathist state, championing Arab nationalism, had deprived thousands of Kurds of citizenship rights, banned their language and clamped down on Kurdish political activity.

During the war, President Bashar al-Assad focused on crushing mainly Sunni Arab rebels with the help of Russia and Iran, turning a blind eye as Kurdish fighters carved out self-rule across the north and east.

Kurdish forces have emerged among the biggest winners, controlling about a quarter of the country — territory rich in oil, water and farmland. It is the biggest chunk of Syria not in state hands, now with its own forces and bureaucracy.

Assad has said he will recover the northeast, but the two sides have kept some channels open.

The Kurdish YPG militia’s power grew after joining forces with U.S. troops to seize territory from Islamic State. While the U.S. deployment has provided a security umbrella that helped Kurdish influence expand, Washington opposes the autonomy plans.

Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek partition but rather regional autonomy as part of Syria. Faced with the threat of a Turkish attack, the Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria has declared a state of “general mobilization” across north and east Syria.

TURKEY

Kurds form about 20 percent of the population.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, tried and sentenced to death. That was later reduced to life in prison after Turkey abolished the death penalty.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has removed restrictions on using the Kurdish language. The government held talks with Ocalan, who is in jail on an island near Istanbul, in 2012, but they broke down and the conflict has revived.

The United States, the European Union and Turkey classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey’s military has often struck targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains.

Erdogan has said he will crush Syria’s YPG, which Ankara sees as a branch of the PKK, and has sent troops into northern Syria to mount offensives rolling back the Kurdish fighters.

IRAQ

Kurds form 15-20 percent of the population, mainly inhabiting the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Late President Saddam Hussein’s rule targeted Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s when chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps.

Their region has been semi-autonomous since 1991, has its own regional government and armed forces, but still relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget.

When Islamic State militants swept through much of northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish fighters exploited the collapse of central authority to take control of Kirkuk, the oil city they regard as their ancient regional capital, as well as other territory disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish north.

Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with U.S. backing, defeated Islamic State which had captured swathes of northern Iraq.

Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum on independence in September 2017, which backfired and triggered a regional crisis in the face of opposition from Baghdad and regional powers.

The vote prompted military and economic retaliation from Baghdad, which retook the territory seized by Kurdish forces since 2014. Ties have since improved, but tensions remain over oil exports and revenue-sharing.

IRAN

Kurds form about 10 percent of the population.

In 2011, Iran pledged to step up military action against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK offshoot that has sought greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran.

Rights groups say Kurds, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, face discrimination under the ruling clerical establishment.

The elite Revolutionary Guards have put down unrest in the Kurdish community for decades, and the country’s judiciary has sentenced many activists to long jail terms or death. Iran’s military has demanded Iraqi authorities hand over separatist Kurdish dissidents stationed there and close their bases.

(Compiled by reporters in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Istanbul; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.S. leads condemnation of China for ‘horrific’ repression of Muslims

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States led more than 30 countries in condemning what it called China’s “horrific campaign of repression” against Muslims in Xinjiang at an event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that was denounced by China.

In highlighting abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in China, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said on Tuesday the United Nations and its member states had “a singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression.”

The United Nations says at least 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in what China describes as “vocational training centers” to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.

Sullivan said it was incumbent on U.N. member states to ensure it was able to closely monitor human rights abuses by China and added that it must seek “immediate, unhindered, and unmonitored” access to the western region of Xinjiang for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Sullivan said Tuesday’s event was co-sponsored by Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, and was joined by more than 30 U.N. states, representatives of the European Union and more than 20 nongovernmental organizations, as well as Uighur victims.

“We invite others to join the international effort to demand and compel an immediate end to China’s horrific campaign of repression,” he said. “History will judge the international community for how we respond to this attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the U.S. move.

The Xinjiang issue is not about human rights but about countering separatism and terrorism, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

“All the slander and defamation of the U.S. and other countries is futile.” said Geng. “Their lies will crumble in the face of facts and truth.”

“RELIGIOUS LIBERTY”

Paola Pampaloni, deputy managing director for Asia of the European External Action Service, said the EU was “alarmed” by the situation and also urged “meaningful” access to Xinjiang.

“We are concerned about … information about mistreatment and torture,” she said. “China is always inviting us to the camps under their conditions, we are in negotiations right now for terms and conditions for free access.”

On Monday U.S. President Donald Trump called for an end to religious persecution at another event on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering. He reiterated his comments in a speech to the General Assembly gathering of world leaders on Tuesday.

“Americans will never … tire in our effort to promote freedom of worship and religion. We want and support religious liberty for all,” he said.

Trump, who has been cautious about upsetting China on human rights issues while making a major trade deal with Beijing a major priority, said religious freedom was under growing threat around the world but fell short of specifically mentioning the Uighur situation.

“Volume is coming up at a pace that we hope that the Beijing government recognizes not only U.S. but the global concern about this situation,” David Stilwell, U.S. Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters.

“We will see how that plays out and how Beijing reacts and take it from there.”

A representative for the Chinese delegation to the U.N. General Assembly accused Washington of violating the U.N. Charter by criticizing China.

Sullivan said the United States had received “credible reports of deaths, forced labor, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” in the camps.

He said there were also many reports that the Chinese government forces detainees to renounce their ethnic identities as well as their culture and religion.

Though U.S. officials have ramped up criticism of China’s measures in Xinjiang, it has refrained from responding with sanctions, amid on-again, off-again talks to resolve a bitter, costly trade war.

At the same time, it has criticized other countries, including some Muslim states, for not doing enough or for backing China’s approach in Xinjiang.

Rishat Abbas, the brother of Uighur physician Gulshan Abbas, who was abducted from her home in Urumchi in September 2018, told Tuesday’s event that “millions of Uighurs are becoming collateral damage to international trade policies, enabling China to continue to threaten our freedoms around the world, enable it to continue its police state.”

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly pushed China to grant the United Nations access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China’s envoy in Geneva said in June that he hoped Bachelet would visit China, including Xinjiang. Bachelet’s office said in June that it was discussing “full access” with China.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Families of Chinese activists face house arrest, harassment from ‘smiling tigers’

Li Wenzu, wife of detained Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, poses for a picture in Beijing, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – When a team of Chinese state security agents picked up Li Wenzu and then prevented her from leaving her own home last week, she was scared but not surprised.

She was detained on the seventh day of a protest march she organized in an attempt to get the authorities to explain what has happened to her husband, Wang Quanzhang, a lawyer who has been missing since August 2015 during a sweeping crackdown on rights activists.

Li was initially barricaded in her home by dozens of people, including plainclothes security officers and members of the local neighborhood committee, she said. Scuffles broke out between her supporters and the crowd, according to videos shared with Reuters.

While Li was permitted to leave and go to a friend’s home the following day, her experience of being sporadically placed under house arrest and pressured by the Chinese authorities to stay quiet has become commonplace for the families of Chinese rights activists, they say.

Such “soft” detention measures are currently being used in dozens of cases, according to the rights groups, including that of Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo. He died of liver cancer last July while in custody.

Many of these individuals have never been charged with any crime, but are treated as guilty by association and as a threat to national security due to the embarrassment they can cause for the Chinese state if they speak out, rights groups say.

Those affected complain of their homes being bugged, phones tapped and of security cameras being installed outside their front doors. But the main method of repression, they say, is being monitored in person by China’s state security agents.

China’s ministry of state security could not be reached for comment as it does not have publicly available telephone numbers. China’s public security ministry did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

‘SMILING TIGERS’

Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers and activists, with hundreds detained and dozens jailed.

Li said the freedom she was given after her brief house arrest was in her experience “only temporary”, as state security officials have become a regular presence for her and her young son.

“In 2016, state security for a period rented a flat on the second floor of my building,” Li told Reuters in an interview at her friend’s home.

The agents are often outwardly friendly and tell Li they are there to protect her safety, she said, calling them “smiling tigers”.

When Li took her son to search for a pre-school in the neighborhood, agents went with them and warned the school against accepting her child due to the family being a “threat to national security”, she said.

“When I got angry with them, they told me that I needed to behave and wait quietly at home for my husband – then my child could go to school,” she said.

Her son has still not found a pre-school place, she said.

‘PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY’

Placing high-profile dissidents under house arrest is nothing new in China; it was even used for former head of the ruling Communist Party Zhao Ziyang after he was sacked in 1989 for showing sympathy towards the pro-democracy Tiananmen movement.

But under Xi, increasingly brazen measures have been used to silence individuals who are not formally charged in an attempt to avoid international scrutiny, according to William Nee, Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International.

“They want a degree of plausible deniability,” he said. “If they were to criminally detain Li Wenzu, they would eventually have to justify it in law.”

Liu Xia has been under supervision at home almost constantly since her husband won the Nobel prize in 2010. She is still only allowed to speak to her friends in infrequent pre-arranged phone calls and visits, they say.

Another common target for house arrest are rights activists who are formally charged but then released after they give what rights groups allege are coerced “confessions”, either to Chinese state media or during trial.

While many avoid jail time, they remain under a form of detention that Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, has dubbed “non-release ‘release'”.

Such methods, Cohen wrote in a recent blog post, go beyond simple house arrest to include an array of “informal, unauthorized and suffocating” restrictions.

Wang Yu, a prominent rights lawyer who was arrested in 2015 during the same crackdown that saw Li’s husband detained, was still under effective house arrest in late 2017, despite her release from detention in late 2016, a friend told Reuters.

Restrictions on Wang have relaxed somewhat in recent months, but she is still closely monitored by authorities, the friend said.

“She told me not to come to her home, because there were people there with her all day keeping watch, just following her around, not subtly at all,” the friend said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell)

Turkey says no return to past repression

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans over a burning effigy of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen during a pro-government demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey

By Humeyra Pamuk and Seda Sezer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey tried to assure its citizens and the outside world on Thursday that there will be no return to the deep repression of the past even though President Tayyip Erdogan has imposed the first nationwide state of emergency since the 1980s.

With Erdogan cracking down on thousands of people in the judiciary, education, military and civil service after last weekend’s failed military coup, a lawmaker from the main opposition party said the state of emergency created “a way of ruling that paves the way for abuse”.

An international lawyers’ group warned Turkey against using the state of emergency to subvert the rule of law and human rights, pointing to allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in the mass roundup.

Announcing the state of emergency late on Wednesday, Erdogan said it would last at least three months and allow his government to take swift measures against supporters of the coup, in which 246 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

It will permit the president and cabinet to bypass parliament in enacting new laws and to limit or suspend rights and freedoms as they deem necessary.

For some Turks, the move raised fears of a return to the days of martial law after a 1980 military coup, or the height of a Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s when much of the largely Kurdish southeast was under a state of emergency declared by the previous government.

About 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants and teachers have been suspended, detained or have been placed under investigation since the coup was put down.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, who previously worked on Wall Street and is seen as one of the most investor-friendly politicians in the ruling AK Party, took to television and Twitter in an attempt to calm nervous financial markets and dispel comparisons with the past.

“The state of emergency in Turkey won’t include restrictions on movement, gatherings and free press etc. It isn’t martial law of 1990s,” he wrote on Twitter. “I’m confident Turkey will come out of this with much stronger democracy, better functioning market economy & enhanced investment climate.”

GRAPHIC: Turkish purge – http://tmsnrt.rs/29IlsUa

MARKETS SKEPTICAL

Markets were less than confident. The lira currency was near a new record low on Thursday, while the main stock index was down 3.6 percent. The cost of insuring Turkish debt against default also surged.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said the state of emergency was aimed at averting a possible second military coup. Another deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, was quoted by broadcaster NTV as saying Turkey would invoke its right to suspend its obligations temporarily under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Turkey’s Western allies have expressed solidarity with the government over the coup attempt but have also voiced alarm at the scale and swiftness of the response, urging it to adhere to democratic values.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Turkey to restrict the state of emergency to the shortest period that was absolutely necessary.

The Geneva-based jurists group ICJ weighed in, with its secretary general, Wilder Taylor, saying in a statement: “There are human rights that can never be restricted even in a state of emergency.”

“The current allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and arbitrary arrests already point to serious violations of human rights,” he said, without giving details of the allegations.

Officials in Ankara say former air force chief Akin Ozturk, who has appeared in detention with his face and arms bruised and one ear bandaged, was a co-leader of the coup. Turkish media have reported that he denied this to prosecutors and that he said he tried to prevent the attempted putsch.

Some detained soldiers have been shown in photographs stripped to their underpants and handcuffed on the floors of police buses and a sports hall.

Erdogan blames a network of followers of an exiled U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, for the attempted coup in which soldiers commandeered fighter jets, military helicopters and tanks in a failed effort to overthrow the government.

Ankara has said it will seek the extradition of Gulen, who has denounced the coup attempt and denied any involvement.

The putsch and the purge that has followed have unsettled the country of 80 million, a NATO member bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran, and a Western ally in the fight against Islamic State.

The state of emergency went into effect after it was published in the government’s official gazette early on Thursday. It still needs to pass a vote in parliament although that is assured because of the AK Party’s majority.

‘THREAT AGAINST DEMOCRACY’

Erdogan announced the state of emergency in a live broadcast in front of his government ministers after a nearly five-hour meeting of the National Security Council.

“The aim of the declaration of the state of emergency is to be able to take fast and effective steps against this threat against democracy, the rule of law and rights and freedoms of our citizens,” he said.

Erdogan has said the sweep was not yet over and that he believed foreign countries might have been involved in the attempt to overthrow him.

A nationalist opposition party supported Erdogan but other opposition politicians were uneasy. “Once you obtain this mandate, you create a way of ruling that paves the way for abuse,” Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) told Reuters.

“The coup attempt was rebuffed with parliament and opposition support, and the government could have fought this with more measured methods.”

TRAVEL BAN

Academics have been banned from traveling abroad in what an official said was a temporary measure to prevent the risk of alleged coup plotters at universities from fleeing. TRT state television said 95 academics had been removed from their posts at Istanbul University alone.

Erdogan, an Islamist who has led Turkey as prime minister or president since 2003, has vowed to clean the “virus” responsible for the plot from all state institutions.

Around a third of Turkey’s roughly 360 serving generals have been detained, a second senior official said, with 99 charged pending trial and 14 more being held.

The Defence Ministry is investigating all military judges and prosecutors, and has suspended 262 of them, NTV reported, while 900 police officers in the capital, Ankara, were also suspended on Wednesday. The purge also extended to civil servants in the environment and sports ministries.

Authorities have also shut media outlets deemed to be supportive of Gulen, while more than 20,000 teachers and administrators have been suspended from the Education Ministry.

Those moves follow the detention of more than 6,000 members of the armed forces and the suspension of close to 3,000 judges and prosecutors. About 8,000 police officers have also been removed.

One of the ruling party’s most senior figures, Mustafa Sentop, on Wednesday called for the restoration of the death penalty for crimes aimed at changing the constitutional order.

(Additional reporting by Gareth Jones and Asli Kandemir; Writing by David Dolan, Editing by David Stamp and Timothy Heritage)