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Eyewitness in Turkey

A political purge is under way in Turkey. Since 2009, thousands of activists from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have been arrested in police raids and interned in extended pre-trial detention. Following elections in June 2011, the BDP currently has 36 members of the Turkish Parliament, elected mainly with the support of Turkey's substantial Kurdish minority.

Now, a series of trials has begun. In the latest of these, more than 200 people are before the ‘Tribunal with Special Powers’, charged with support for, and involvement in, the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK), which is a banned organisation. This grouping, it is alleged by the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Erdogan, acts as the 'urban branch' of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), also banned in Turkey because of its long-term armed campaign against the Turkish state. On this pretext, the Turkish authorities continue to arrest large numbers of activists throughout the country in regular raids. In recent weeks, prominent Kurdish trade unionists were detained.

Most of those before the court during the mass trial in Silivri are Kurdish members of the BDP, but some are Turkish supporters of the party, including Professor Busra Ersanli, the distinguished scholar and writer, and Ayse Berktay, the respected peace activist and translator. Ragip Zarakolu, a celebrated publisher of political commentaries and other writings, who has this year been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was also in court, although he had been released from pre-trial detention following an international outcry. His request to address the court was not granted during open session.

Ayse Berktay has now been remanded in detention until the court reconvenes in October, together with most of the accused, although she has already been detained for nine months, since October 2011. On 13 July, the judges granted bail for an additional 16 accused, including Professor Busra Ersanli.

Our international delegation attended four of the eight days of proceedings in Silivri. The cavernous court house stands next to Europe’s largest prison, housing some 11,000 detainees beneath high walls and dozens of watchtowers. During these days, there was time to read only part of the 2,400 page indictment to the court. On day seven, defendants had about an hour to make personal pleas, strictly in the Turkish language as the court refused to hear statements in Kurdish, although this was the preferred tongue of many of those in the dock. Sixteen individual defendants made such pleas.

Lawyers representing defendants collectively, as well as those representing some individual defendants, made submissions lasting about six hours during days seven and eight. Not all lawyers who wanted to speak had the opportunity to address the court. Those who did exposed serious inaccuracies and shortcomings in the lengthy indictment. The prosecutor spoke only briefly to oppose requests made to the court by defence lawyers.

The international delegation of three persons was excluded from the final session of the hearing, together with all the many relatives and friends of the accused. The reasons for this are unclear. We were therefore prevented from hearing the judgment of the court in refusing requests for release for many of the 200 people on trial. Apparently, the court, using some new provisions, granted only 16 more people bail, while many others continue to be interned, awaiting October's hearing. Why people are treated so differently is not at all clear, so that the decision appears somewhat arbitrary.

Based on what we heard in court, our impression is that the indictment is extremely thin. There was not one convincing argument supporting the heavy accusation of terrorism. The elements of the dossier that have been presented in court are mostly related to membership of the BDP, or to the fact that the defendants were attending or giving courses at the political academy of the BDP. We are astonished that the judges decided to keep so many persons in prison on the basis of the inadequate evidence we heard. There is no relationship nor proportionality between the facts as presented, and the extreme measure of keeping so many of the accused under lock and key for long periods. In Turkey, people may be held for up to ten years in pre-trial detention.

A similar and related trial of lawyers has now commenced in Istanbul. This will be followed by a trial of journalists in September. International delegations are attending.

The proceedings in Silivri were accompanied by massive displays of force on the part of the jandarma security services, replete with armed riot squads, two water cannons, tear gas, and alsation dogs. Such intimidatory displays are certainly inimical to democratic politics, bringing to mind, as they do, modern Turkey's troubled history of repressing free and open debate. They also seem to reflect an absence of public confidence in the court. This lack of trust may, perhaps, be explained in part by a recent assessment of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who has characterised the attitudes exhibited by Turkish judges and prosecutors as ‘state-centred’ rather than rights-centred.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the Westminster Parliament, in its recent report on Turkey, recommended that the British Foreign Office should ensure that its Turkish partners are ‘in no doubt’ that the shortcomings in the Turkish justice system are damaging Turkey’s international reputation and leading to human rights abuses. Such damaging conduct was all too apparent in Silivri.

Tony Simpson
Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

Patrick Deboosere
Professor Vrije Universiteit Brussels

17 July 2012


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