Details about Tuesday’s operation remain sparse due to a gagging order issued by the prosecutor’s office in Diyarbakir, the south-eastern city that is the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region.
State-run Anadolu news agency, however, reported that 126 people had been detained in raids across 21 provinces on suspicion of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The group has waged a 39-year war against the Turkish state, leading to tens of thousands of deaths, and it is considered to be a terrorist organisation by the US and EU.
The Diyarbakir Bar Association said prosecutors had issued arrest warrants for 216 people.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has its roots in the Kurdish movement and is currently Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, and lawyers’ groups and journalists’ unions have denounced the arrests.
The timing of the operation ahead of May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections has raised questions about whether the arrests were intended to curtail the HDP. Although the party is not part of the main opposition alliance, it has tacitly given its support by not fielding its own presidential candidate.
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia associate director, described the operation as “clearly an abuse of powers and intimidation tactic before [the] election.”
The elections are expected to be the sternest test President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced during his 20-year rule.
Rampant inflation driven in part by the President’s insistence on cutting interest rates has seen him drop in the polls. He has also faced criticism over the response to February’s earthquakes, which highlighted faulty building practices.
“Unless they are completely confused, it is an extreme error to think that they will intimidate the people with a new operation days before the election,” said Ihsan Caralan, a former editor-in-chief of left-wing newspaper Evrensel.
“This is indicative of how desperate the government has become to recover from the process of collapse into which it has been dragged.”
The detentions, instead, could further erode support for Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) “because the one-man administration, which cannot make any new promises to the people, now threatens to throw those who insist on resisting” into prison, Mr Caralan added.
Idris Sahin, a lawyer and former AKP MP who now acts as a spokesman for the opposition Deva Party, said the arrests were an attempt to intimidate opponents and, by targeting lawyers, to weaken the security of the elections.
“To interpret this issue in another way is to deceive ourselves,” he said. “The aim is to intimidate rival political parties in the run-up to the elections and to gain an advantageous situation in the process by spreading a climate of fear.”
The HDP, which the government and its supporters accuse of having ties to the PKK, is no stranger to arrests and jail sentences. Thousands of its members, mayors and MPs have been removed from office or imprisoned over the last eight years.
The party currently faces a court case seeking the party’s closure and a political ban on hundreds of its members. To sidestep such an outcome, the party is running parliamentary candidates under the umbrella of the little-known Green Left Party.
Dozens of HDP members were among Tuesday’s arrests, including officials from the party’s central executive and co-deputy leader Ozlem Gunduz.
“It is no coincidence that lawyers who will protect the election ballot boxes, journalists who will inform the public and politicians who are competing with AKP in the field have been targeted simultaneously,” the party said in a statement.
Journalists from several south-east-based media outlets, including the Mezopotamya news agency, the Yeni Yasam newspaper and Xwebun, Turkey’s only Kurdish-language newspaper, were also reportedly detained.
The Diyarbakir Bar Association said at least 25 lawyers from the city were held, while the Long Live Our Theatre Initiative named 11 actors who had been arrested.
“It is not possible to consider such an operation in Diyarbakir 19 days before the election as disconnected from the country’s political agenda,” said Nahit Eren, president of the bar association.
He questioned the need to arrest lawyers in dawn raids by armed police. “It is significant that the houses of the lawyers who are in the courthouse every day are raided and [they are] detained,” he said.
“You could have called lawyers, who meet with these prosecutors every day, to testify.”
Veteran journalist Mehmet Yilmaz said it was “obvious that those who gave this order aimed to create a perception in society with these images of this operation organised by armed police.”
He added: “As Erdogan realises that the ground beneath him is shifting and he can’t stop it, we may encounter other such operations.”