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  • Turkish Constitutional Court decision boosts Erdogan's election chances
    Turkey's Constitutional Court has rejected a call by the second largest opposition party, the HDP, to postpone until after this summer's elections a case which could close the HDP. The decision has fuelled fears President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the judiciary to undermine the opposition. These are challenging times for Turkey's second-largest opposition group, the People's Democratic Party or HDP. The Constitutional Court has already frozen the organisation's state funding and is considering a case against the HDP for alleged links to Kurdish rebels of the PKK. A decision against the party could lead to the suspension of the HDP. In a further blow, the court this week rejected a call to delay the case until after parliamentary and presidential elections that must be held by June. "The biggest legal problem is the cloud of suspicion hanging over the party's legal existence. Will it be able to enter the elections or not," wondered Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary president of the HDP. "This creates a lot of problems," says Kurkcu, "Because the present leadership of the party as a whole and the former leaders all are now under threat of being banned from politics. I can tell you, since 2015, at least 20,000 people who went through the prisons are exiled, or they go into hiding." The former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas is already in jail in a case which has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as politically motivated. The Ankara government rejects such charges, insisting its courts are independent.  But the HDP is the main rival to Erdogan's AKP party for the country's large Kurdish vote in what is expected to be a closely fought campaign, "Ideally Erdogan would like to close down HDP," says Mesut Yegen of the Reform Institute, an Istanbul-based think tank, "because if this happens, then it's likely that his AK party will get more seats." Other opposition groups in trouble The main opposition CHP party is also facing legal woes. Its charismatic mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, widely tipped as a presidential challenger last month, was convicted of insulting an official and faces a political ban.  Emma Sinclair-Webb is the senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. She warns that the judiciary is increasingly becoming a political tool.  "The two areas where the government maintains control and gives itself a huge advantage are control of the judiciary and judicial decisions, which are then used against the opposition in a very arbitrary and restrictive way, and also control of the media and social media as well," said Sinclair-Webb  With Turkey grappling with rampant inflation, opinion polls indicate that, for the first time in two decades, Erdogan is playing electoral catch-up. But the fear is that the courts rather than the voters could decide the outcome. "It's as if there is no law anymore. It depends on Erdogan's wishes," warned Yegen. "It means that they can be even harsher. They can even suspend all the basic sort of rules or laws. And this is why the opposition is very much concerned about the security of the elections," added Yegen.
  • Could Turkey's floating generators help power Ukraine through the winter?
    As Russian forces continue to target Ukraine's energy infrastructure, a company in Turkey claims its power ships can thwart Moscow's efforts to leave Ukrainians without electricity this winter. Russia's latest onslaught against Ukraine once again targeted civilians, with an apartment block in Dnipro destroyed in a missile strike on 14 January.  But Russian attacks do not only take out homes. The streets of Ukraine are regularly plunged into darkness as missiles relentlessly hit the country's power stations. "What they are seeing is that they are doing this in order to kill as many Ukrainians as possible – but in a kind of indirect way, by creating the unbearable conditions for life without electricity, heating and water," said Petro Burkovskiy, a senior fellow at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv. "Right now, we have subzero temperatures and the winter has started. It's a real challenge for the people ... I would say hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will be in danger." But the Turkey-based company Karpowerships says it can help alleviate Ukraine's energy crisis. The company's promotional video boasts it has the world's largest fleet of power ships – floating power plants with massive generators that can operate independently. Up to 300 megawatts Karpowership operates worldwide, including in hotspots like Beirut, supplying millions of homes with electricity.  According to Zeynep Harezi Yilmaz, the chief commercial officer of Karpowership: "We have been in contact with Ukrenergo [Ukraine's national power company] since August last year and with the Odesa governorate as well." The company could potentially place three 100-megawatt ships, Yilmaz said, adding that one such ship could power the port of Odesa and its facilities while the others could supply nearby residential areas. "The technical side is where to position the power ship and whether there is enough water depth at the port," she explained. "And since we have a substation on board the power ship, it requires only a couple of overhead transmission lines to connect to the nearest substation." With Ukraine's power stations targeted by Russian forces, Kyiv says generators have become of strategic importance. "That is why generators and uninterruptible power sources have now become as necessary in Ukraine as armored vehicles and bulletproof vests," declared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, remotely addressing an international aid conference in Paris last month.  Safety concerns Protecting power ships from Russian airstrikes would be a significant challenge. Ankara has maintained good relations with Moscow, but it is unclear whether the goodwill would extend that far. "Physical security means that we need to be in a zone where our personnel is not threatened and we can continue supply logistics without any interruptions," warned Karpowership's Yilmaz. "Now we are in communication with Moldova authorities and Romanian authorities to also evaluate the possibility of placing the ships in Romania or Moldova and then transmitting the electricity to Ukraine," she said. Turkey and Russia closer than ever despite Western sanctions Is the war in Ukraine creating a new world order? Karpowerships says that with some of its ships already close by, they could be supplying Ukraine with electricity within 30 days. But payment could be the biggest obstacle.  "The question is who will pay for these services, whether it's the Ukrainian government or a kind of international agency, so these details are not clear," cautioned Burkovskiy. But time is not on Kyiv's side, as Russian forces are predicted to step up their assault on Ukraine's infrastructure just as the worst of winter sets in.
  • Leading Turkish doctor convicted over call for chemical weapons inquiry
    The head of Turkey's Medical Association was convicted of terrorist propaganda this week, after she called for an inquiry into an alleged chemical weapons attack against Kurdish separatists. It came as rights groups warn of an increasing legal crackdown on civil society ahead of polls this year. In the face of a heavy police presence, doctors joined by civil society groups and medical associations from across the world gathered outside Istanbul's court house on Wednesday demanding the acquittal of Sebnem Korur Fincanci, president of Turkey's largest doctors' union. "What we hope today is the president of the Turkish Medical Association will be acquitted and be able again to speak freely and say what has to be said," said Dr. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, chair of the World Medical Association, in a speech to the demonstrators. But to no avail. Fincanci, a prominent forensic doctor, was convicted of terrorist propaganda for calling for an independent inquiry into allegations that the Turkish army used chemical weapons against Kurdish separatist group the PKK in Iraq, after she was presented during a television interview in October with photos apparently showing dead militants. The military vigorously denies using chemical weapons. Free pending appeal "This court case should never have happened; this is a scandalous verdict. She only expressed a scientific opinion. We will appeal," declared Ozturk Turkdogan, one of Fincanci's lawyers and co-chair of Turkey's Human Rights Association. With Fincanci's sentence under three years, she was eligible for release. She had been in jail since October, when she was taken from her home by police in an early-morning raid. She was freed on Wednesday while she appeals the verdict. 'Disproportionate' The arrest and conviction of Fincanci, a leading member of Turkish civil society, is seen by rights groups as sending a powerful political message. "She made that statement in her capacity as a doctor who is a forensic medical specialist, who's looked at war crimes, who's looked at mass graves, who's looked at all sorts of things concerning chemical weapons as well," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch.  "If someone like her can't question these things, who can?" Any critical statements to the media risk being construed as an act of terrorism, according to Sinclair-Webb.  "It's a completely disproportionate response to prosecute someone like Sebnem Korur Fincanci," she said. "The larger issue here is that ... the government is very unhappy with Turkey's Medical Association because it has made critical statements about health issues." As head of the physicians' union, Fincanci was an outspoken supporter of recent protests by doctors over conditions and the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mounting pressure With much of the media under government control, Turkey's civil society is one of the last remaining platforms critical of the authorities. Philanthropist Osman Kavala, a prominent supporter of Turkish civil society, remains jailed in a case condemned nationally and internationally as politically motivated, a charge the government vehemently denies. Rights groups warn pressure on civil society is likely to grow, with presidential elections due by June this year. As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social media What will the deadly bombing in Istanbul mean for Turkish politics? "It will increase because now we are in the election process. So they will, of course, target NGOs, human rights defenders, or [anyone] outspoken," predicts Sinan Gokcen, head of the Turkish branch of the Swedish-based Civil Rights Defenders. "There is no isolated case in Turkey," said Gokcen.  "All are linked, or all such cases are part of a bigger plan to silence the human rights community. Not only the human rights community, but civil society in general. Because in an authoritarian regime, in any country – in Russia, in Belarus, in Hungary, Poland – the first target of the authoritarian regime is the truth." But Fincanci's release from jail is seen by her supporters as a small victory. Speaking to a small crowd of friends and supporters outside prison, she struck a defiant note. "Doctors who struggle not only within these borders but also for people all over the world, for all living species, for this earth, for the universe, are natural human rights defenders," she declared. "Therefore, jailing them or shutting down their professional organization is out of the question. Such attempts can be made; they have been made before. But in the end, they had to give up. We will keep on struggling for them to give up again." The small crowd outside the prison cheered and sang songs celebrating Fincanci's release. But with many of her supporters belonging to Turkey's civil society, they remain aware they are increasingly living in the shadow of arrest and prosecution.
  • Iran could make old foes Netanyahu and Erdogan the best of friends
    The return to power of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is raising questions over the future of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement, given the tempestuous relations between Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to date. Netanyahu's election victory – which swept him back to power as prime minister again – comes as Turkish-Israeli relations are warming. During Netanyahu's previous rule, he and Erdogan routinely exchanged insults. "I think there is an issue in this history between these two leaders, yes," warned Gallia Lindenstrauss, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, a research organization in Tel Aviv.  "There were rhetorical battles between them," Lindenstrauss added. "Especially after the previous normalization attempt in 2018 reached a crisis point. But both leaders are very pragmatic. They both have been in power for a long time and now this pragmatism will assist them." As elections loom in Turkey, Erdogan pulls plug on opposition social mediaCongratulations Erdogan was quick to call Netanyahu to congratulate him on his election victory in a conversation both sides said was cordial. Mesut Casin, a presidential adviser at Istanbul's Yeditepe University, says Iran provides common ground, with Erdogan sharing Netanyahu's concerns over growing Iranian regional influence and Tehran's nuclear energy programme.  "There has been a big transformation in relations between Turkey and Israel relations," added Casin. "This is beneficial for two sides. "Israel has a big headache with Iran. Especially Netanyahu who is very suspicious of Iranian nuclear weapons. According to Netanyahu, they are almost ready to have nuclear forces. Also, this is against the Turkish vital interest. This will be a collapse of the balance of power in the Middle East," said Casin.  With Netanyahu relying on the support of political parties that some analysts describe as having hardline policies toward the Palestinians, a potential flashpoint remains. "There is, of course, the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think we cannot ignore it," cautioned Lindenstauss.  "Any serious deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian front will also affect Turkish public opinion and will also affect Erdogan and his statements towards Israel. "And we should be cautious because this is an issue that is a point of contention between the two countries," added Lindenstrauss. Ankara's 'change of priorities' Tuesday's visit by Israeli's National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, accompanied by a large security detail to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, one of Islam's holiest sites, drew widespread condemnation across the Muslim world.  The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a telephone conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, condemned the visit. But Erdogan, who in the past rarely missed an opportunity to attack Israel for similar actions, remained silent on the incident. Asli Aydintasbas of the Brookings Institution in Washington suggests Ankara's priorities may have changed.   "The Palestinian issue is very much on the back burner in terms of the Turkish discussion. over the past few years. "Over the past few years, various flare-ups on the Israeli-Palestinian front have barely made it to the news in Turkey. "Traditionally, the Palestinian issue had been a litmus test for the relationship between Turkey and Israel. But I think now times are different. Turkey feels it needs Israel's support, that it has developed a strategic relationship with Israel. "The truth is, the Palestinian issue is no longer as critical or important or consequential for the leadership of the Turkish government at the moment." Regional power play Erdogan's rapprochement with Israel is part of a broader policy of improving ties in the region. Analysts point out that many of those country's leaders were uncomfortable with Erdogan's strong backing of the Palestinian cause. For now, Ankara's priorities appear to be focusing on cooperation with Israel from energy to defence. "Turkey is, again, how can I say, eager to establish military cooperation together with Israel," said Casin. "I worked with Israel in the military service. We made very good agreements between Turkey and Israel."
  • Turkish military incursion in Syria faces opposition from US, Russia
    Turkish military forces are poised to launch a ground offensive in Syria against US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, accused by Ankara of attacks on Turkey. But Ankara is facing stiff opposition from both Washington and Moscow. Turkish security forces blame the Syrian Kurdish YPG for carrying out a series of recent attacks against Turkey, including in Istanbul, a charge the group denies.  The Turkish Defense Ministry said Sunday that Turkey launched deadly airstrikes over northern regions of Syria and Iraq, targeting Kurdish groups that Ankara holds responsible for last month's deadly bomb attack in a bustling street in Istanbul. Ankara also accuses them of being linked to PKK insurgents fighting in Turkey. After shelling positions held by the YPG, Turkish forces are now poised to create a 30 km deep security corridor inside Syria. Mesut Casin, a presidential advisor at Istanbul's Yeditepe University, says preparations are almost complete for the incursion saying Turkey has no choice. What will the deadly bombing in Istanbul mean for Turkish politics? "Just in a short time, three attacks killed many civilians. This is number one. And number two, the military has explained that within the last eight months, we lost more than one hundred military service people." Casin told RFI.  He points to a map on his computer screen of the Syrian region under YPG control. "A lot of weapons are deployed in the YPG area in eastern Syria. Often their missiles kill civilians. This is an unacceptable condition for Turkey. This is against our military security and sovereignty," he explains.  Difficult diplomacy The YPG strenuously denies it is launching attacks into Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish group is a close ally of the United States in its war against the Islamic State. The group says it suspended some its operations against the Islamic State because of the looming Turkish threat. "There's the danger that the US government will be torn between two unsavoury options," says Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank. "That is to say, abandoning their Kurdish allies, who they've been fighting with, fighting ISIS since 2014, or facing a confrontational relationship with Turkey, when things seem to be on a relatively even keel. "So both of these options are bad," Aydintasbas continues. "The US would be faced with this dilemma if there was a Turkish incursion. So what they're trying to do, behind the scenes, is urge and warn Turkey not to go ahead." Washington is calling on Ankara to step back, a stance echoed by Moscow, which controls part of Syria that Ankara is targeting. Russia also controls Syrian airspace access, which analysts say Turkish forces would need for any ground operation. Iranian-backed militia in Syria have also vowed to resist any Turkish incursion.  Political distraction But with Turkey in the midst of a deep economic crisis, some analysts say powerful domestic forces are behind the planned operation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing reelection next year and cannot risk losing face by pulling back from such an incursion. "Erdogan desperately needs an operation, any military operation beyond Turkish national borders, and the best place would be in Syria," says Rtd general Haldun Solmazturk of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute. Russia's Putin searches for allies in meeting with Iranian and Turkish leaders "But it has become obvious that neither the United States nor the Russian Federation would let this happen. So faced with this reality, Erdogan has already backed down, I believe, and now he's bargaining," Solmazturk says. One concession Ankara is looking for from Washington is purchasing American fighter jets, a sale currently stalled in the US Congress. No let up "I believe the incentive for Mr. Erdogan is to conduct this operation because it would create a kind of rallying around the flag movement," Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat and now a regional analyst for Medyascope news portal, told RFI. "The operation may be delayed, but the threat, or the statement of an imminent military operation for northern Syria, will stay with us until the elections, at least," Selcen adds. Whatever Ankara does, few predict any let up in the coming months by the Turkish military in its targeting of the YPG.

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