Turkey's judgement day: the trial of the Kurds

Margaret Owen, a member of the UK Independent Observer delegation, reports on the KCK trial in Diyarbakir before today's ruling
Margaret Owen
11 November 2010

A trial that would shame any democracy is now entering its fourth week in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Named the KCK trial, its processes have been widely condemned, on the grounds that the essentials for a fair trial are missing, by the several hundred independent observers who have attended its opening days starting on October 18th. November 12th is crunch day when the judge, at the 6th Criminal Assize Court, will decide whether to accept the defence team’s argument that there is no case to answer and release those detained, or to determine that the trial will continue, and the suspects remain in prison or are bailed. Charged with “violating the unity of the State”, “abetting terrorism”, and belonging to the KCK - alleged to be the urban arm of the PKK,  are 151 Kurdish politicians, lawyers, mayors, and leaders of Kurdish civil society organisations.  103 of these suspects have already been in detention for the past 18 months, but the details of the charges and the grounds were not disclosed until 12 weeks ago. The manner of gathering evidence and the actual procedures in the courtroom breach all international and European standards on human rights and fair trials. The trial could last for months, even years. It is vital that those in prison are released on bail, and that the prosecutions are dropped for this is a “political trial” not a legal one.

The Pro-Kurdish political parties, and recently the PKK, have made repeated attempts to obtain a resolution of the 30 year old conflict through democratic dialogue and negotiations rather than through violence. The PKK, it is true, in 1984, began their armed struggle which lasted 30 years and was responsible for many acts of violence and killings. Many Kurds felt they had no alternative but to fight back, against the persistent rejection of their culture, the evictions from their villages, and the wide-spread discrimination they experienced. However, the Kurdish Community, as a whole, has always sought a political and  not a military solution. And in recent years the PKK has called for cease-fires on several occasions, and have just now declared that the present cease-fire, due to expire at the end of the month, will continue until the elections taking place next June. Moreover, the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, (still imprisoned on the isle of Imrali ) is also asking for negotiations as a solution, and is committed to a cease-fire.

Sadly, time and again, the authorities have closed down their pro Kurdish political parties; imprisoned Kurdish political leaders; and declared Kurdish civil society and human rights organisations illegal and their activities criminal. Peaceful protests and demonstrations pleading for an end to armed conflict, and respect for basic human rights are subject to brutal harassment by the police. The Democratic Society Party (DTP) was the last of several parties to be closed down in 2009. Today, legal-democratic Kurdish politics continues under the roof of the newly named BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), but not only have many of its members been arrested and imprisoned, but its distinguished Chair, Ahmed Turk, has been banned from all political activities for the next five years, and the brilliant and charismatic Mayor of Diyarbakir,  an international figure, Osman Baydemir, faces not only prosecution but also assassination threats as he continues to speak out on behalf of the Kurdish population whose lives are wracked by persecution, extra-judicial killings, torture, displacement and extreme poverty. Some 5,000 Kurds are in prison on charges of supporting terrorism, but this trial will reveal exactly Turkey’s status in the context of democracy, justice and the Rule of Law.

What exactly are these defendants accused of? They are accused of being the “urban arm” of the PKK. The PKK is labelled a “terrorist organisation”, and they have been responsible for many acts of violence in the recent past.  But the security forces, police and gendarmes have also been responsible not only for many killings, disappearances, and torture during interrogations and in detention, but for brutal harassment of peaceful protests and demonstrations, for the arrests and detentions (sometimes on long sentences) of women and children. But while the PKK, based in the mountains of Northern Iraq, carries the “terror tag”, within Turkey the Kurdish political leaders and civil society organisers have always, in all their public statements, activities, and publications, pursued the path of dialogue as a means for peace. This prosecution seeks to prove that all activities, all organisations of the Kurdish people are ipso facto supportive of, or even members of the PKK. Yet the so-called “evidence” included in the indictment fails to prove this alignment in any way.

This trial of the 151 “suspects” represents the most repressive of actions yet to shut down the lawful and democratic activities of Kurdish organisations and eliminate all political activity. The manner in which the evidence to be proven in the trial was gathered gives cause for extreme concern. It is clear from a reading of a summary of the 7,500 page indictment (the whole has been read by lawyers for the accused) and so-called supporting evidence that there are no grounds for suspecting that any actual crimes have been committed among all the alleged references to planned violence, weapons, acts of violence, or conspiracy for terrorism. Most of the evidence is based on (unlawful) wire-tapping and bugging to draw conclusions from private daily conversations, or on routine political propaganda and secret statements by anonymous prosecution witnesses. Innocent conversations, for example, referring to the purchasing of “tomatoes”, or “bread”, are construed as codes for bombs and grenades and have found their way into the indictment, along with intimate and personal conversations between family members and friends.

To prepare for this event, and accommodate not only the 151 defendants, but their 250 lawyers, the press, the many relatives of the accused, the members of foreign observer delegations, and over sixty armed prison police, the Turkish government built a vast new courthouse in the old open courtyard between the existing courts. The joke went round that everyone should be grateful to the Kurds for this new Courtroom, and will probably need to thank them again for a new prison. Security precautions have been intense. There were over 1,500 armed police on duty around the building and armed snipers on the surrounding rooftops. It took ages to get into the court, going through body searches and scanning. My purse containing some Turkish lira in coins was confiscated because “I might use them as missiles to throw at the Judge”.

Once in, the scene inside the court was bizarre. In the middle, in a sort of corral, and surrounded by prison police, sit the prisoners. The police, visibly armed, some of them even sitting among the accused as if anyone of them is likely to commit a violent act if not closely watched and guarded, change their rotation at half-hour intervals, marching between the rows of lawyers, the judges and the relatives, in military formations. We recognised several of the suspects – men and women whom we have shared panels with in London and in Brussels, in the Houses of Parliament Committee Rooms, and in meetings hosted by the UK Bar Human Rights Committee.  Many of the accused are lawyers. One of them is the Head of the IHD (Human Rights Commission), Muharrem Erbey, who has continually spoken out on the need for diplomacy, dialogue to end the conflict, but has rightly drawn attention to the human rights abuses – torture, disappearances etc. – that have afflicted the Kurdish people.

The trial began with the Judge, Menderes Yilmaz, dismissing the defence lawyers’ submissions that:

a) the defendants should be able to defend themselves in their Kurdish mother tongue, in accordance with Article 6 of the ECHR (European Charter of Human Rights) which sets down the criteria for “fair trials” and Article 39/5 of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which also lays down the rights of minorities to use their own language, as an essential of a fair trial

 b) the indictment, (7,500 pages) which also contained unchallenged and therefore unproven evidence of crimes, should not be read in its entirety, but instead could be summarised

c) The defendants be immediately released from prison on bail, since this trial could last many months


On these opening days the accused lawyers argued ferociously and passionately that these proceedings were in fact a “show trial”, a “political trial”, that there were no victims, the evidence was based on hearsay, and the trial should be abandoned.

In spite of the obvious  tension in the courtroom there were moments of hilarity as several of the suspects insisted on answering the roll call of prisoners in their native Kurdish. “I don’t understand you, and you don’t understand me, and I don’t understand anyway what is going on here” responded one middle-aged man. Another wittily enquired when asked to verify his address “Which do you mean? My current or my previous? Also, joy tinged with emotion as relatives, wives and mothers, waved to their loved ones, separated from them for so many months.

How long this trial will last is anyone’s guess.  Right into the third week, the judge was still reading through the indictment. Therefore the defence lawyers, representing 151 individuals have only a few days to argue their case. This Friday, November 12, the judge will decide whether or not there is a case to answer. If the case is to continue then it could be months, even years, before it is completed. It is imperative that these 103 defendants are released on that day, and reunited with their families.  Meanwhile, there are well over 1,000 other BDP members in prison awaiting their own indictments and trial.

March, 2009 was a time for rejoicing with a new hope for peace, justice and democracy when the DTP won a victory over the AKP (the ruling Justice and Development Party) in the local elections. Some of us observing this KCK trial also monitored those elections and joined in the celebrations, as the DTP increased its local government holds and mayoralties from 54 to 99 units. But just two weeks after these victories, in April, 2009, 53 members and executives of the DTP, including three vice-chairs and former mayors were detained and remanded in a brutal police operation. In December last year the DTP was closed down and its 37 executives banned from politics for five years. This is the background to this trial.

There are only four more days left for the accused to argue their defence. On Friday November 5, the end of the third week, Judge Mendez again refused to hear the defence in Kurdish. He stated, for the record that the suspect “talked in an unknown language”. Ramozan Morkoc responded “You cannot call Kurdish an unknown language. You insult our language, our culture, and our people”.

The legal expert’s reference to Article 39/5 of the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923, which guaranteed mother-tongue rights as essentials for fair trials, was discounted. Finally, the judge ordered army officers to remove Mr. Morkoc from the court.  The UK delegation is calling on UK MPs to sign an EDM (early day motion) and letters are going out to both government and opposition leaders asking that they protest these human rights abuses taking place in Turkey.

There is still time for Turkey’s AKP government to acknowledge that this trial has no basis in law, order its closure, and the immediate release of those detained.

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