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Turkey: Kurdish Parties, Rights Groups Concerned Over Fate Of Detained Asylum Seekers

Reports say Turkey recently arrested a number of Iranian Kurdish asylum seekers who had fled to Eastern Anatolia from Iran or northern Iraq and that some may have been handed over to Tehran. Kurdish officials and international rights groups say any attempt to extradite those asylum seekers to Iran would put their lives in danger.

Prague, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Most of those who are believed to have been taken into Turkish custody are said to belong to the left-wing Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). The KDPI has been struggling for the autonomy of Iranian Kurdistan since the downfall of the shortlived Mahabad Republic in 1946.

Other detainees are believed to be members of a rival group known as Komala, or the Organization of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan, a radical left-wing organization set up in the late 1960s.

Komala and the KDPI -- not to be confused with Iraq's Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) -- have had conflicting relations in the past, at times joining forces against Tehran, at times waging internecine wars that claimed hundreds of lives.

In theory, Komala has ceased to exist, but the organization is still known in Iran and, along with the KDPI, remains associated with Iranian Kurds' nationalistic feelings.

Despite internal dissensions, both groups have come under equally fierce repression from central authorities -- be it the Shah regime or the Islamic Republic -- and have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries or in Western states.

An estimated 50,000 Kurds have fled persecution in Iran out of a total Kurdish population of 6 million. Most Iranian Kurds have settled in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Khosrow Abdullahi is the KDPI's chief representative in Europe. He told RFE/RL that the recent arrests took place in the Eastern Anatolian city of Van, where some 1,200 Iranians -- ethnic Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, or Persians -- have sought refuge over the past five years.

"On 30-31 August , Turkish police arrested some 20 people and transferred them to unknown locations. The rumor had it then that these people had been transferred to the Iranian border. We [immediately] alerted the relevant international organizations, including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International. Up until now, 10 people have been released [and have returned to Van]. Four people who had been transferred to the Iranian border have also been released. But the fate of the other six remains unclear. We don't know whether they have been extradited to Iran, or whether they are still in Turkey. UNHCR officers in Ankara, Van, and [at the agency's headquarters] in Geneva have no information either," Abdullahi says.

Abdullahi says the actual number of detainees is probably much higher since refugees were arrested along with their wives and children.

He also says all those arrested had documents testifying to their refugee status and, as such, are protected by the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. As a state party to the convention, Turkey is forbidden from extraditing refugees who do not pose any threat to its national security to a country "where their lives could be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group, or political opinion."

Nevertheless, Ankara has limited the application of the term "refugee" to people who have fled their home countries as a result of events occurring in Europe, excluding asylum seekers from neighboring Iraq and Iran.

KDPI representative Abdullahi says, "The people who were arrested [on 30-31 August] had come [to Turkey] from Iraq three years ago. At the time, there was an UNHCR office in Arbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. When this office was closed down, the UNHCR asked these refugees to move to Van and Ankara in Turkey and appear before UNHCR officials there. All those who were arrested [last week] had UNHCR papers."

Speaking by telephone from Ankara, UNHCR spokesman Metin Corabatir told Radio Farda, RFE/RL's Persian-language service, that the agency has received information suggesting Turkey has handed over a number of Iranian asylum seekers to Tehran in the past few days, thereby putting their lives at great risk.

Corabatir also said the detainees arrested in Van had applied for refugee status but could not confirm whether their requests had been met.

Neither Turkish authorities nor the Iranian government has confirmed the arrests and the possible deportation of Kurdish militants. Officials in both countries could not be reached for comment.

Speaking to Radio Farda by telephone from Van, one Kurdish refugee who asked not to be named said Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey fear for their lives: "We are all peshmergas or members of Komala who have been actively involved in political armed struggle for the past decade. Do you think our lives would not be endangered if we were deported to Iran?"

Although Turkey and Iran have recently moved to improve bilateral ties, relations remain strained over the Kurdish issue.

Ankara has long accused Tehran of supporting militants of its outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it holds responsible for a bloody guerrilla war that claimed an estimated 35,000 lives between 1984 and 1999.

Iran, in turn, blames Turkey for allegedly offering KDPI and Komala fighters a safe haven in Eastern Anatolia.

Yet, Kurds have often fallen victim to attempts by Ankara and Tehran at mending fences.

In the past, Ankara has handed over KDPI or Komala members to Tehran in the hope of obtaining the extradition of Iran-based PKK members in return.

Abdullahi says that a few years ago, Turkish authorities extradited two KDPI members (Kazim Tuheri and Khalid Shoqi) to Iran. Both Kurdish activists were reportedly executed in 2002 after enduring months of torture in Iranian custody.

Asked whether the recent arrests of Kurdish asylum seekers in Van could be part of a deal between Ankara and Tehran, Abdullahi said, "This I could not say. It is possible because we have seen that kind of swap between the governments of Iran and Turkey in the past. But I cannot say anything for the moment because I do not know whether PKK members were [recently] extradited to Turkey. Be it as it may, we have had such cases in the past."

Ankara last month offered a limited amnesty for PKK members.

But the Marxist group -- which is now known as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) -- has denounced the initiative as a ploy. It has threatened to resume its armed struggle for autonomy in predominantly Kurdish Eastern Anatolia provinces unless Turkey endorses a proposed "road map" to solve the Kurdish issue peacefully.

Turkey is also pressing the United States to move against the organization's training camps in northern Iraq's Qadil Mountains, near the Iranian border, in return for Ankara's possible participation in a multinational stabilization force in Iraq.

Washington has so far given no sign that it is ready to take military action against the PKK, although it officially considers the group a terrorist organization.

(Radio Farda's Jamshid Zand contributed to this report.)