Kurdish group tries to shake terrorism label
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — The Kurdish Hezbollah, the Islamic group nicknamed “Hezbatrocity” because it is suspected of killing hundreds of Kurds in the 1990s, has resurfaced in southeastern Turkey as a charity calling itself the Association for the Oppressed.
It says it has renounced violence, highlighting a key dilemma in coping with the threat from militant Islam: Can militants with blood on their hands be trusted when they publicly renounce violence?
Huseyin Yildirim, an official in the group, admits that he carries a heavy weight on his shoulders. He never killed anyone, according to associates, but he was jailed for membership in Kurdish Hezbollah.
The radical Islamic group with no known connection with the Hezbollah of southern Lebanon, is accused of killing about 500 people in southeastern Turkey in the 1990s.
“Yes, some of our members were Hezbollah, but we are [now] opposed to violence, categorically,” Mr. Yildirim said in an interview at the organization’s headquarters in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey’s biggest city.
“Our fight is against poverty, ignorance and all sources of social conflict,” he said.
In the 1990s, the Turkish Hezbollah fought a two-front war, against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. It lost.
In 2000, police found torture chambers and grave-filled safe houses during a massive crackdown on the group, in which they arrested about 6,000 members. It earned the group its nickname, Hezbatrocity.
“Hezbollah did all this killing in the name of Islam,” said Celal Aygan, head of another Islamic association in Diyarbakir.
“People do not trust Mustazaflar,” he said, using the Turkish term for the NGO.
Still, the organization seems to be able to pull crowds bigger than the PKK, traditionally the strongest group in the region.
In February, during a Turkish army incursion against PKK camps in northern Iraq, 40,000 Islamists marched in Batman, near Diyarbakir, to protest Israeli attacks on the Palestinian territories.
Last month, thousands of people turned out in towns across Turkey when the NGO organized celebrations for the prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Inzar, an Istanbul-based monthly magazine close to Hezbollah, now boasts a circulation of nearly 10,000 copies.
The group “can become an influential power in southeast Turkey in the mold of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Mahdi Army and Hamas” in the Palestinian territories, warned a policy paper published in September by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Many local analysts think this sort of talk is exaggerated, a kneejerk reaction to the religiousminded ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP tripled its vote in Kurdish areas of Turkey during general elections last summer.
When 100,000 gathered in February 2006 during the Danish cartoon crisis, the media presented it as a Hezbollah march, says Bulent Yilmaz, head of a conservative local NGO.
“In fact, 95 percent were ordinary people. Kurds are close to their religion and always have been. None of the groups you see today — including this one — have come out of nowhere,” Mr. Yilmaz said.
“Personally, I’d be delighted to see signs of the Islamization the media is talking about. But I don’t,” he said.
Despite the group’s peaceful face, its rhetoric remains radical, with publications referring to Turkey’s secular regime as “taguti,” or sinful.
“If Islam comes to the fore, there won’t be any need left for fighting and killing,” said Sait Sahin, the soft-spoken head of the group’s Istanbul branch office.