A trial that would shame any democracy is now in its fourth week in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Named the KCK trial, its processes have been widely condemned by the several hundred independent observers who attended during its first few days.
Charged with “violating the unity of the state” and “abetting terrorism” are 151 Kurdish politicians, lawyers, mayors and leaders of Kurdish civil society. Of these, 103 have already been in detention for the past 18 months, but details of the charges were not disclosed until 12 weeks ago.
This Friday is “crunch day” when the judge will decide whether to accept the defence team’s argument that there is no case to answer and release those detained, or to let the trial continue with the “suspects” remaining in prison or released on bail.
The manner of gathering evidence and procedures in the courtroom breach all international and European standards on human rights and fair trials. I was a member of the independent UK delegation that attended the first week of this trial. It 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 violence. The PKK has called for “ceasefires” on several occasions, and has just now declared that the present ceasefire, due to expire at the end of the month, will continue until the elections taking place next June.
But time and again the authorities have closed down pro-Kurdish political parties, imprisoned Kurdish political leaders and declared Kurdish civil society and human rights organisations illegal. Peaceful protests and demonstrations calling for an end to armed conflict and respect for human rights are subject to brutal harassment by the police.
The Democratic Society party (DTP) was the last of several parties to be closed in 2009. Today, legal-democratic Kurdish politics continues under the roof of the newly named BDP (Peace and Democracy party). 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, 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, extrajudicial killings, torture, displacement and extreme poverty.
Some 5,000 Kurds are in prison on charges of supporting terrorism, but this trial will reveal Turkey’s true status in the context of democracy, justice and the rule of law.
This trial of the 151 “suspects” is the most repressive action yet to shut down the lawful and democratic activities of Kurdish organisations and eliminate all political activity. The manner by which the evidence in the trial was gathered gives cause for extreme concern.
It is clear from the 7,500-page indictment and so-called supporting evidence that there are no grounds for suspecting any actual crimes have been committed, such as references to weapons, acts of violence, or conspiracy for terrorism. Most of the evidence is based on (unlawful) wiretapping 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 more than 60 armed prison police, the Turkish government built a vast new courthouse in the yard between 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 has been intense. There were more than 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”.
Many of the accused are lawyers. One is Muharrem Erbey, head of the IHD (Human Rights Commission), who has continually spoken out on the need for diplomacy and dialogue to end the conflict.
The trial began with the judge, Menderes Yilmaz, dismissing the defence lawyers’ submissions – firstly, that the defendants should be able to defend themselves in their Kurdish mother tongue.
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 of the alleged crimes, that the evidence was based on hearsay, and that the trial should be abandoned.
There is still time for Turkey’s AKP government to acknowledge that this trial has no basis in law, and order its closure and the immediate release of those detained.
Margaret Owen, a human rights lawyer and adviser to the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) and Peace in Kurdistan (PIK)