"Only voters can remove us," says defiant Kurdish mayor in Turkey

"A policeman told me, 'Your term in office is over. You can pack your personal items and leave,'" Azize Deger Kutlu recalls.

The mayor of Sur, a district of the mostly-Kurdish Diyarbakir province in south-eastern Turkey, Kutlu was summarily dismissed last week, with no advance warning.

Armed police, with dogs, raided the building, which was then sealed off. Police now stand guard outside with automatic weapons and armoured vehicles.

Kutlu and her co-mayor Izzetin Candan were among 24 elected officials in the south-east connected to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) who were fired by the cental government in Ankara. They are suspected of having aided the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"We have nothing to do with that," Kutlu said. She said Ankara was exploiting the state of emergency since the coup over the summer in order to carry out a "putsch" against her party.

"Only those who elected us can vote us out of office," she says defiantly.

The US Embassy in Ankara also voiced concern, calling on Turkey to have "respect for judicial due process" and allow citizens to elect their own officials.

Kutlu says she never faced any formal charges. She was simply replaced by a trustee appointed by the government in Ankara, run by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Four other mayors elsewhere in the country were also removed on the same day, amid accusations they supported the movement of preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused of orchestrating the July 15 coup attempt.

The secular-leftist HDP dominates in the south-east, to the chagrin of the conservative-Islamic AKP, the other main party in the area.

The government has been moving against the HDP for months, including lifting the immunities of 55 of the party's 59 representatives in parliament, paving the way for legal action against them. The party's chiefs now face terrorism charges.

Erdogan had begun a peace process several years ago with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Last year, however, the president rejected a road map for peace with the PKK that had been worked out by negotiating teams. A ceasefire which held two years collapsed in July 2015 with the PKK firing the first shots.

Since then, about 2,000 are confirmed dead in the renewed violence. Hundreds of thousands of people in the mostly-Kurdish south-east have fled their homes.

Kutlu's district, Sur, has seen several rounds of fighting. Four neighbourhoods have been sealed off, some building almost completely razed. Only the security forces are allowed to enter the former battle zones.

Local residents have mixed feelings about Ankara's move against the mayors.

Halim, a grill operator near the restricted zone, only shrugs and says he was fed up of the all the fighting between the police and the PKK.

"I think it is good that they have dismissed the mayor. The government says it has proof that the community supported terrorism, so the state had to take action," he said.

Kiosk owner Nurettin, 43, concurs, saying he was "disappointed" by the HDP's failure to prevent the violence. "That is our party, but they did not fight for us," he said.

But two former residents of the off-limits zone, Mehmet, 45, and Necat, 60, stand completely behind their district mayors.

"I could always go to their office. They listened to me and gave me something to eat," Mehmet said. "But now they won't even let me enter."

Amid the fighting, he was forced by the police to give up his house and kiosk. Since then he has been out of work and struggles to support his wife and nine children.

"The government has made beggars of us," he says, staring at the barricades behind which his house and business used to be. He worries about feeding his family come winter, when he can no longer grow his own food.

“The reason why they destroyed our quarters is Erdogan, its his police who did it," he says.

Necat bemoans his house, destroyed along with "the washing machine, the beds, everything."

He worries that the Kurds - who make up some 15 per cent of the country's population - will have no future if the government keeps up its moves against the local leaders.

Last update: Fri, 16/09/2016 - 07:01
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