Trials and Tribulations in Turkey
by David Morgan
Sun 30th Sep 2012
Turkey’s lamentable human rights record and, in particular its attempts to intimidate independent Kurdish organisations through mass show trials, was the theme of an important seminar held by Peace in Kurdistan on 18 September in Garden Court Chambers, London.
The briefing brought together leading legal experts, media professionals and human rights activists who had all been taking a close interest in the trials of fellow lawyers, journalists, academics and trade unionists taking place in Turkey over recent months.
The trials, which have involved the arrest of thousands of progressive and mainly Kurdish activists, and seen hundreds sent to trial, have collectively become known as the KCK trials after the Kurdistan Communities Union, an umbrella civil society association, which the Turkish state deems to be a front for terrorism.
The trials in fact amount to Turkey’s attempts to criminalise and eliminate all aspects of Kurdish legal political activity and are the state’s response to recent electoral advances made by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, which has been gaining strength in the largely Kurdish southeast.
Professor Bill Bowring, President of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and International Secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, brought his wealth of experience of Turkey’s judicial persecution of the Kurds to bear in his able chairing of the seminar.
Margaret Owen OBE, a barrister who takes a special interest in women’s rights and member of the Bar Human Rights Committee, vividly described her experiences as an observer at the Istanbul trial of 35 Kurdish lawyers which took place earlier in the year.
The lawyers were being tried under the country’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation and were seen as suspect simply for representing their client, Kurdish Leader, Abdullah Ocalan, as is their duty as lawyers.
She stated that this case violated the respect for lawyers that was an essential requirement of a democratic society and the rule of law; the case, which has not yet concluded, showed that in Turkey lawyers were prosecuted simply for doing their job.
She pointed out that the trial itself was illegal under Turkey’s own law which said that lawyers could not be prosecuted without the permission of the Ministry of Justice, which was not even sought in this case.
Ms Owen damned the trial as a political show trial and the proceedings as a farce. She called for more observers to go to Turkey when the trial reconvenes on 6 November.
Ali Has, a Kurdish lawyer practising in London, who accompanied Margaret Owen to Istanbul, elaborated on her concerns and filled in the political background to the trials which were connected to the faltering peace talks between Turkish security forces and the PKK.
There was no doubt that the trials were politically motivated and the Turkish state was manipulating the issue as part of the bargaining in negotiations, he suggested.
Any advocacy of a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict was interpreted as being in favour of terrorism; for example, to describe the PKK as ‘guerrillas’ was taken to be committing an offence, Ali Has said.
The next speaker Tony Simpson, editor of The Spokesman and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, gave an eyewitness account of the trial in July of peace activist Ayse Berktay, who was standing trial along with Professor Busra Ersanli, Ragip Zarakolu and others.
Simpson thought that it was not insignificant that Ayse Berktay had been one of the organisers of the World Tribunal on Iraq which was held in Istanbul in June 2005. She was now standing trial for supporting a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. It was relevant that many of the accused in this case were Turkish political activists, he said.
Simpson said that the problems were rooted in the fact that ‘Turkish law was state centred rather than rights centred’. He said that he was shocked by the cynicism of the judge who clearly was not interested in giving the accused a fair trial. What was happening in Turkey today had serious consequences, Simpson said, pointing out that the country was currently holding one third of the world’s detainees accused of terrorism.
Of course, they were not terrorists, but BDP members who wanted to find a political solution to the country’s problems. He urged more lobbying of British politicians to help change the situation within Turkey.
The final speaker on the panel was Barry White, a member of the European Federation of Journalists, which is part of the International Federation of Journalists.
He stated that members of his profession faced repression on a mass scale in Turkey and described how the EFJ was taking up the cases of individual journalists detained for carrying out their normal work of reporting political issues.
He condemned the various violations of the legal process inside the country and described the mass trials as terrible for press freedom.
The EFJ had observed a trial of journalists in 2011 and had since issued a statement in which it stated that ‘justice will not be served in these courts’.
It was now vital to step up the publicity campaign to raise the issues with sympathetic politicians and throughout the media in the UK, White concluded.
Speaking during the discussion, Father Joe Ryan, of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, described his visit to Diyarbakir in 2011 and echoed the concerns of other trial observers.
He also said that he had recently attended the launch in Brussels of the Freedom for Ocalan campaign petition of which he was a supporter.
Estella Schmid, from Peace in Kurdistan, related what was happening inside Turkish courtrooms to the political crisis in the country and the wider situation in the Middle East following the ‘Arab Spring’; the turmoil in neighbouring Syria should be seen as an opportunity for the Kurds who were achieving the right to rule themselves in the Kurdish regions, a prospect that was viewed with alarm in Turkey.
Estella proposed that a new alliance be formed of the groups which had expressed their concerns about these issues in order to campaign more effectively through coordinated action. As a first step a meeting will be called in due course to discuss the best way to take the campaign forward.
The seminar highlighted the continuing gross violations of due legal process and political rights in Turkey today. The deteriorating situation had to be exposed to public view.
While Turkey’s allies are forced to look away in embarrassment, it is the task of human rights activists to ensure that they are shamed into taking some action to put pressure on their unruly partner.
By persisting with these trials Turkey is in reality putting itself on trial before the tribunal of world public opinion.