Türkiye: Kurdish politicians convicted in unjustified mass trial

(Ankara, May 17, 2024) – The conviction of 24 Kurdish politicians by a Turkish court on May 16, 2024 on trumped-up charges of crimes against the state follows a blatantly political and unfair trial, Human Rights Watch and Turkey Human Rights said Litigation Support Project said today. The court sentenced the 24 people to prison terms of between 9 and 42 years and acquitted twelve other politicians who had stood trial with them.

The politicians were members of the parliamentary opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including former party leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. The verdict confirms that the Turkish authorities exploited the criminal justice system to ensure the long-term arbitrary detention of politicians on unfounded charges and to remove them from political life as elected representatives.

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdağ and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest step in a campaign of persecution that has deprived primarily Kurdish voters of their elected representatives, undermined the democratic process and criminalized lawful political expression,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Using fake criminal cases to remove democratically elected Kurdish politicians from political life will not help end the Turkish state’s decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”

At the 22nd Ankara jury trial, the court sentenced Selahattin Demirtaş to 42 years in prison, Figen Yüksekdağ to 30 years and Gültan Kışanak, the former mayor of Diyarbakır, to 12 years, while Kışanak and four others were released pending appeal. Ahmet Türk, the acting mayor of Mardin, was sentenced to ten years in prison. The court ordered the further detention of 13 defendants, including Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ. The former HDP MPs, elected mayors and party officials have been on trial for three years on several charges, ranging from attempted “destruction of the unity and integrity of the state” to “membership in a terrorist organization” to “murder.” The Evidence against her, as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, consists almost entirely of social media posts and political speeches from her party.

The core accusation in the 3,530-page indictment with the names of 108 defendants, 36 of whom were in court, is based on four social media posts from October 6, 2014 on the HDP’s Twitter account in addition to political speeches by politicians.

The prosecution added to the file several years after the events in question some statements, including those from anonymous witnesses, in which unfounded and generalized allegations were made against the politicians. The inclusion of these dubious statements in the file followed an arbitrary procedure that disregarded the defendants’ fundamental guarantees of a fair trial.

In its 2014 tweets, the party called on its supporters to protest the ongoing siege of the Kurdish-majority Syrian city of Kobane by the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS). The prosecution uses these tweets as an opportunity to hold the accused politicians directly responsible for the subsequent protests in 32 cities across Türkiye from October 6 to 8, 2014, in which violent clashes resulted in at least 37 deaths, the circumstances of which have never been fully clarified enlightened. The trial of the politicians was dubbed the “Kobane trial” in the media due to references to the Kobane protests.

The indictment charged the politicians with up to 30 crimes, including the main crime of attempting to “destroy the unity and integrity of the state,” as well as “murder,” “damage to property,” and “theft.” Deaths and violence during the protests for which they were blamed. Current criminal case files against the politicians in various courts, which accused them of crimes such as “membership in a terrorist organization” and “dissemination of terrorist propaganda,” were then merged with the file of the “Kobane trial.”

The Ankara court’s ruling, which the convicted politicians planned to appeal, is the latest development in a long campaign of persecution against the pro-Kurdish right-wing HDP. The persecution was led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Human Rights Watch and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project said.

The crackdown on the politicians followed the failure of intensive efforts by the party and government in 2015 to end the decades-long conflict between the armed PKK and the Turkish state. In May 2016, in a rapid succession of events, the government took a controversial step to remove parliamentarians’ parliamentary immunity through a temporary constitutional amendment. On November 4, 2016, leading HDP MPs and mayors of a sister party elected on other days were arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges.

Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, the former co-chairs of the HDP, have been in prison ever since. The party itself is fighting a case before the Turkish Constitutional Court that seeks to have it stopped.

The Ankara court’s ruling also represents a blatant disregard of two binding judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR found in a judgment concerning Demirtaş in December 2020 and a judgment concerning Yüksekdağ and twelve others in October 2022 that her detention was a politically motivated attempt to silence her and “suppress pluralism” based on speeches and social media posts. “Restriction of the freedom of political debate, which is at the core of the concept of a democratic society.” The ECHR found that their rights to freedom, expression and candidacy had been violated and that the politicians should be released immediately.

The alleged facts underlying the detention of Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ and the basis of their conviction are essentially the same as those of the trial, which the ECHR considered to be insufficient justification for their detention.

“The sentencing of Demirtaş, Yüksekdağ and several other prominent opposition politicians in Turkey to long prison terms for their righteous political advocacy for the rights of the Kurds is a further blow to hopes for a positive change in the situation of human rights, the rule of law and democracy in the country country,” said Ayşe Bingöl Demir, director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project. “This latest conviction, as well as the ongoing arbitrary and politically motivated detentions, blatantly violate international human rights standards and disregard the rulings of the ECtHR.” The international community now faces a crucial decision: remain silent and risk complicity in these repressive practices, or denounce them and take strong action, including the initiation of proceedings for such serious violations of international obligations.”

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