Disclaimer: Any personal views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not of the ICLB.
Written by Margaret Owen, International Trial Observer and Barrister
Friday 7 September
I was informed that Selahattin Demirtas (pictured), the imprisoned former co-chair of the pro Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), would at last be appearing in person for this final, 6th hearing. Selahattin Demirtas has been detained since November 2016 under anti-terror law. He faces various charges and is accused of making terrorist propaganda. Demirtas’ co-defendant is the HDP MP for Ankara, Siri Surreya Onder, who will also be present at the hearing.
I travelled to Istanbul to report on the trial as an International Observer from the UK. Outside the Silivri prison compound I expected to find crowds of Demirtas/HDP supporters. Upon my arrival at the prison however, it was eerily quiet, as apart from a sizeable police presence, I found only a few hundred supporters, and soon discovered that Demirtas himself would not be there in person after all; he would be delivering his defence to the terrorism charges via video link.”Look”, said one female supporter, pointing to the sky. “You see the drone. The police want to identify who is here outside the court so they can investigate us for supporting terrorism”. It was the first time I had seen a drone, like a black insect in the peaceful blue sky.
At the entrance to the court I was joined by a few other international observers, from the Canadian, Swiss and Dutch embassies. The nature of this trial would reflect the status of Turkey’s justice system since Erdogan won the 2018 Presidential election, in which Demirtas also stood as a candidate from his prison cell. It’s a significant event.
In the vast courtroom itself (approximately 30 meters by 65 meters), we international observers were allocated seats in the middle, but this was nowhere near enough to clearly see and hear events unfold. From where we were sitting it was difficult to make out the figures of the judge, his two co-judges, the prosecutor and the group of defence lawyers. The supporters were corralled into the very back of the court, but in the centre and front, were scores of police and jandarma. Huge video screens were placed either side of the podium. On the screens we could dimly make out the figure of Demirtas sitting at a table, two Lawyers either side of him.
The Lawyers began by repeating their protest that this trial is conducted with immense administrative and procedural irregularities since the charges of terrorism were never put to the defendants in court, contravening Article 7 of the Turkish Penal Code. The full indictment was never read in open court so that the defence could answer to it. Demirtas is said to have provided a full defence to the court, when in fact he has only provided one to the administrative and procedural irregularities. The lawyers further asserted that the poor quality of the video link makes it unfit for a fair trial and that their client should have been produced in person.
Again, as in the previous hearings, the defence lawyers asked for the court to appoint an independent expert to examine the prosecutor’s transcript to identify all the mistakes, deliberate, or negligent, that falsify the speeches made by the defendants in 2013. These errors made it seem as if both Demirtas and his co-defendant, Siri Surreya Onder, were advocating violence, when they were actually pleading for a resumption of the peace process. The original prosecutor and Judge are now themselves in prison, for involvement in the 2016 attempted coup, making these proceedings considerably questionable. The judge refused these demands, and told the lawyers to keep their speeches short.
When it was Demirtas’ turn to speak, he explained that it was his poor health that prevented him from appearing in person. For well over an hour he produced newspaper after newspaper reporting on his 2013 Newroz speeches, which at the time were in line with President Erdogan’s own policies promoting the peace process. Demirtas stated that “It’s not my wish to attack the court system, but you have so manipulated and exploited the court rules and mechanisms to destroy my chances of having a fair trial”. He had only received the prosecutors alleged findings and questions only two days prior to this hearing, when they could have sent them weeks, even months earlier, giving him proper time to respond.
Again and again, Demirtas denounced the Court for totally ignoring the context in which his 2013 speeches were given. He accused the prosecution of putting into the transcript words he had never used, and of inserting the name of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), when he had actually spoken of the HDK (Peoples Democratic Congress) which was the legal civil society organisation that was later renamed to the HDP, aka The Peoples Democratic Party.
In 2013 when the peace process was still operating, the government actually supported what Demirtas was saying. “Why don’t you read these papers yourselves?” he asked, holding up a bunch of newspapers. “Why on earth would I be calling for violence just when Erdogan too seems intent on dialogue for peace?” Demirtas suggested that the terrorism accusations are simply revenge for his and the HDP’s continual advocacy for the peace process that Erdogan stopped in 2015.
Later, MP Sirri Onder had his turn before the judge, stating that he fully endorsed and adopted the defence of Demirtas. To our astonishment and excitement, he turned on his laptop so we could hear the actual speech Demirtas made in 2013. Here were Demirtas’ own words broadcast on TV, clear evidence that the court police transcripts were false. Onder had requested the recording from a prominent national TV channel, Haber TV, so as to prevent any suggestion of fabrication on his part.
There was much more to hear from Demirtas, and from Ondar, but the judge was showing his impatience. At one point Demirtas accused him of not reading his 150 pages of answers since he had only submitted them that day, but the judge claimed he had read every word.
By early afternoon, after a 10 minute adjournment, we the observers, were allowed back in court to hear the verdict. The supporters were refused admission.
Both Demirtas and Onder were found guilty of making propaganda for a terrorist organisation. Demirtas was given a jail sentence of 4 years and 8 months, whilst Onder received 3 years and 1 month. If the sentence is under 5 years, there can be no appeal to the constitutional court, which further limits the right to a fair trial in the upper courts.
Demirtas stays in prison, and has many other indictments against him, in Ankara and elsewhere. The prosecutor is calling for 145 years imprisonment. The lawyers for both Demirtas and Onder said that they will appeal the sentences.
Outside the court the heavy police presence made any organised press conference impossible, but stalwarts from the HDP managed to speak a few words, decrying the verdict, and vowing to continue the struggle for justice, peace, democracy and the Rule of Law. These are critical times in Turkey. The supporters outside the courtroom, recognising that I have come from the UK, implored me to tell the World what is happening. Hopefully this blog will help spread the word.
Margaret outside the Silivri prison compound.
There was a heavy police presence as MP Professor Dr Erol Katircioglu tried to make a statement on the trial. Along with other Demirtas/HDP supporters, he challenged the verdict and vowed to continue the struggle for the return of the Rule of Law and an independent judiciary in Turkey, and the release of thousands of political prisoners.
Very relevant to the context of this trial, illustrating the current police-state environment in Turkey, are two other meetings I had during my short stay in Istanbul. The first one took place on Friday, when returning from the Silivri Prison court, I met with three of the Saturday Mothers, (the Cumartesi Anneleri) at the Istanbul offices of the IHD (Human Rights Association).
These are the brave women, (following the example of the Argentinian Plaza De Mayo Mothers) who, since 1995, have been protesting in silent vigil every other Saturday, in several cities across Turkey, holding photographs of their “lost” loved ones. They pay particular focus to a section of Istanbul’s famous main thoroughfare, the Istiklal.
The three Saturday Mothers.
The three related to me that two Saturdays ago, on August 25th, as the Saturday Mothers were preparing for their 700th sit-in in the Istiklal, the police violently attacked, spraying them with tear gas and water, beating and arresting all 47 women. Even their 82 year old founder, Emila Ocak, was among those bundled into police vans and made to wait in the searing heat for nearly 10 hours. The women were handcuffed and marched into the police station only to be released without charges.
Hanife Yildiz wept as she described the disappearance in 1995 of her only son, 19 year old Murad. Maside Ocak, Emilia’s daughter, spoke of finding her brother’s dead body 15 days after the police had taken him away. All three women described the police violence of the previous Saturday and they showed me their still visible bruises. Sebla Arcan told me she suffered a minor heart attack, another woman had her fingers broken as she was handcuffed, and several women sustained injuries and experienced breathing difficulties, but the police refused them medical attention. “We were treated like animals, like sub-humans” Arcan said, “But we will continue our protests tomorrow even though we are told we can not assemble as we have done for 700 Saturdays.” The attacks on these women show the lengths that the Erdogan administration will go to silence all opposition.
Artwork of the Saturday Mothers
The next meeting I had, took place on Saturday. It was the second day of an extraordinary three day International Law Conference: The Dark Side of the Moon, which brought together a host of distinguished lawyers from Turkey and across the world. Its theme was “THE NORMALIZATION OF THE STATE OF EMERGENCY AND THE SITUATION OF THE JUDICIARY IN TURKEY”. However, arriving on Iskitlal to access the venue, I found that the Galatasaray section of the street, where the Saturday Mothers regularly assemble for their vigil, had been closed off, and there were masses of police surrounding the metal barriers. Almost all the big shops were shut and I had to walk over a mile to get round to the other end of the street so as to access the conference centre.
Conference platform at The Dark Side of the Moon.
Quite a brilliant array of speakers were at the event. They described the current violence in Turkey, the attacks on freedom of speech and assembly, the assault on lawyers and the right to defence, and summarising the appalling impact of the State of Emergency on people’s lives in the context of both Turkish and international law. Among the conference speakers were many internationally acclaimed human rights lawyers such as our own Professor Bill Bowring, Thomas Schmidt of the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy, and the eloquent Dominique Attias, Vice-President of the European Bar Association. Attias placed the responsibility firmly on all of us as lawyers to do everything in our power to restore the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary to Turkey by using every available means.
In Turkey, there are so many lawyers either in prison or facing investigations and prosecutions. Leaving the Conference early to get to the airport, I wondered just how safe those who practice law are from arrest and detention without any chance of a fair trial. The attacks on the lawyers and the Saturday Mothers, and even the verdict in the Demirtas trial are all linked, illustrating the Erdogan administration’s intention to portray any opposition, any criticism of the region, any pleas for justice, as proof of supporting terrorism.
The few days I spent in Turkey were a clarion call to every one of us privileged enough to be practicing law in a free society. We must redouble our efforts to support our fellow lawyers in countries, such as Turkey, where their rights are endangered. So I blog in the hope that reading this will encourage more lawyers to attend, observe and report on these political trials and the iniquities of the Decree Laws.
To read a copy of one of Demirtas’ 2013 Newroz speeches, click here:
And to read the official HDP press release on the Demirtas and Onder verdict, click below:
Cover image source: www.moderndiplomacy.eu
Photos supplied by Margaret Owen