Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey’s Marxist guerrillas

The death of a public prosecutor at the hands of Marxist guerrillas is a painful reminder that Turkey’s democracy faces continuing challenges from the far left, writes David Barchard

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In gruesome scenes in Istanbul’s central courthouse at Caglayan on 31 March, two Marxist-Leninist militants from the DHKP-C, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party and Front, held a terrified prosecutor prisoner captive and gagged. They posed for photographs amid revolutionary flags and the pictures were soon seen around the world.

About five hours later, the two assailants and their prisoner were all dead after police staged an unsuccessful operation to free the prosecutor. The courthouse siege was the fifth attack staged by the DHKP-C in under a year, and its perpetrators seem to have fully expected to die in the course of it.

The dead prosecutor, Mehmet Selim Kiraz, had been investigating the death of Berkin Elvan, a 13-year-old who died after apparently being shot with a tear gas canister by so far unidentified policemen during a demonstration in June 2013. No charges have ever been brought and Kiraz was the fifth prosecutor assigned to the case in under than two years.

Public indignation in Turkey runs very high over the death of Elvan because of apparent official indifference and even attempts to denounce him as a terrorist. On Twitter, pro-DHKP-C posts described the seizing of the prosecutor as “people’s justice.” But when Elvan’s father appealed to the militants not to kill their captive, saying, “Blood cannot wash away blood,” his words were ignored.

Kiraz was simply the latest in a long line of victims over the decades. His funeral in Istanbul was attended by huge crowds. The mourners were led by the legal profession and Kiraz’s colleagues. The courthouse is to be renamed after him.

Others killed by DHKP-C over the years have included generals, Ozdemir Sabanci, a key figure in Turkey’s second-largest industrial group, and foreign businessmen. In February 2013, it staged a suicide attack on the US Embassy in Ankara in which one person was killed.

The courthouse attack reminds Turks that despite their country’s shift towards a more Islamist political system, left-wing protests and terrorism still exist in their country. The shoot-out in the Istanbul courthouse was immediately followed by well-orchestrated protests by Marxists and even the attempted erection of barricades in lower-income suburbs of the city.

DHKP-C’s history goes back nearly 50 years to its origins as Dev-Sol (the revolutionary left), part of the leftist student movement of the late 1960s. It and similar groups quickly learnt to emulate revolutionary guerrilla movements in Latin America. Most of the other groups were crushed or eliminated over the years by the military, though some re-emerged at protests in the wake of the Gezi demonstrations of 2013.

In 1994, after a spate of clashes with the authorities that left its upper echelons decimated, Dev-Sol dropped its original name and became the DHKP-C. However, it has never operated as a conventional political party or sought legality. It is on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations in the United States, the EU and the UK, though it remains active in London.

Long after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and other similar movements elsewhere, the DHKP-C claims to be fighting a “people’s guerrilla war” to set up a revolutionary regime under a red flag with a red star in a circle.

This week’s militants and sympathisers on Twitter claimed their model was Mahir Cayan, an ultra-hardline revolutionary who died on 30 March 1972 (the anniversary is unlikely to be a coincidence) after taking three British NATO technicians hostage, all of whom were killed.

However, since the 1960s the DHKP-C’s support base seems to have evolved. Today it is believed that most of its supporters come from Turkey’s 18 million-strong Alevi community, supporters of a version of Islam close but not identical to Twelver Shiism.

In the 2013 Gezi protests, all of the eight demonstrators killed across the country were either Alevis or, in a few cases, Alawites (strictly speaking, a different sect) from Antakya on Turkey’s border with Syria.

In the southeastern heartlands of Turkey’s Kurdish population, the Kurdish PKK Party tends to recruit its followers from Sunnis, and the DHKP-C from Alevis. Though the two movements are competitors, Dicle, one of the two pro-Kurdish news agencies in Turkey, published an article immediately after the siege ended.

It gave a sympathetic account of an interview made a few months ago with Şafak Yayla, one of those who died in the 31 March courthouse raid. The 25-year-old Istanbul law student had abandoned his studies to become a DHKP-C urban guerrilla.

It repeated claims by Yayla that he was tortured while being held prisoner after a demonstration protesting student university fees. The report scarcely touched on the violence of the courthouse attack.

 Yayla’s origins as a student from a lower-income family are fairly typical of the organisation: from the Alevi community, radical, working class, but educated and above all young. Turkish government reports estimated in 2007 that around 65 per cent of its members were under the age of 25 and 20 per cent were university graduates.

About a third are lycée students and, to judge from demonstrations, this percentage is probably rising. Many come from predominantly Alevi districts of Istanbul and Ankara where violent clashes between the authorities and the local authorities frequently take place, and in some cases lasted for months on end after the summer of 2013.

A second source of support comes from Turkish exile groups in western Europe. It is there that the older leadership of the movement seems to exist underground and that funding for operations in Turkey is raised.

The appeal of the DHKP-C and similar Marxist movements to non-religious young lower-class metropolitan Turks seems to be growing, suggesting that in the conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its opponents the political centre is losing ground to the extremes.

It is likely too that the DHKP-C, having survived many violent clashes over the decades, has a highly effective and secret organisational and recruiting structure that is unmatched by conventional democratic political groups. Its re-emergence is further evidence of the strains besetting Turkey’s democracy.


The writer has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant and university teacher and writes regularly on Turkish society, politics and history.

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