Inadmissible evidence: Turkey and the BDP trials

by Jeremy Corbyn Morning Star

Diyarbakir is an ancient city in Eastern Turkey with well preserved walls from its foundation and an astonishing Ottoman period bazaar. The vast majority of the population are Kurdish speaking as are people throughout the region, and yet the one language that is never seen in public statements and until recently was almost not spoken on the streets is Kurdish.

The region has seen enormous conflict over the past 25 years with thousands killed in the conflict between the PKK (Kurdish Workers's Party) and there have been many efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to this fundamentally political issue.

The Kurdish people were initially granted international recognition after the treaty of Versailles in 1918 and this recognition ceased with the establishment of the modern borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey in 1922.

The Kurdish movement in each of the countries has persistently sought recognition of language and identity.

In the case of Turkey the Kemalist tradition is strongly for a unified, unilingual state and persistent discrimination against and rejection of Kurdish culture has led to decades of conflict and anger by Kurdish people.

Many fled into exile or moved into other parts of Turkey, away from the South East and others felt they had no alternative but to fight back.

In 1984 the PKK started an arms struggle which has gone on for nearly 30 years.

The Kurdish community as a whole have always sought a political and not a military solution. Indeed, their demands are for recognition and autonomy within Turkey.

Currently the PKK is on unilateral ceasefire. Despite huge legal obstacles the Kurdish parties have shown tremendous levels of support in the South and East of the country and in Istanbul and in 2009 had spectacular electoral success by winning a considerable number of national parliamentary seats and a very large number of mayoralties including Diyarbakir.

Persistent political harassment of the BDP party and prosecution of its representatives culminated in a roundup of 1,500 members last year.

Included in the roundup of prosecutions was Osman Baydemir, for promoting the Kurdish language in official publications.

The prosecution are seeking a prison sentence of over 170 years in his case. Last Monday the indictment process against the first 151 defenders opened in Diyarbakir.

To prepare for this event the Turkish government built a vast new courthouse in the open space between existing court buildings in the city.

I was one of a number of international observers from European countries, including MPs from Sweden and Germany, and legal and human rights delegations from many other countries.

The authorities put 1,500 police on duty around the court building and army snipers on the roofs of all of the surrounding buildings and an enormous security operation to separate lawyers from journalists, from families, from international observers.

Despite being registered observers it took me and another MP (Hywel Williams) two-and-a-half hours to get into the court building itself.

Inside, it is a bizarre spectacle. The building, that could be an aircraft hanger, with a corral in the central part containing the defendants who are surrounded by armed soldiers and, on each side, the 250 lawyers who have attached themselves to the case out of solidarity sit in expectation. At the back, a couple of hundred family and international observers look on.

The three judges sit on a raised dais in the distance at the front.

On the opening day of the indictments the prosecution deposited a 7,500 page dossier of charges against the 151 defendants amounting to several million words.

The chief judge required each defendant to identify themselves which they all did in Kurdish. Then the lawyers, all 250 of them, identified themselves one at a time.

After this seemingly interminable process the first lawyers for the defendants requested that their clients speak in Kurdish, that the whole document not be read out and that the clients all be granted bail.

During this whole process the soldiers routinely changed their guard rota and so at 20 minute intervals (roughly) a group of soldiers would march around the court room walking between the lawyers, the defendants and the judges before being replaced by a new group of soldiers.

The opening day witnessed some ferocious and highly articulate speeches stating that this was a "show trial" against the Kurdish people, that there were "no victims" and that the evidence was all based on hearsay.

The cases against the defendants were essentially that they were undermining the unity of the Turkish state and that they had links to the PKK.

The evidence appeared to be based on extensive phone tapping and liberal use of hearsay reports.

The atmosphere in the courts was a strange mixture of tension, because of the severity of the sentences being sought by the prosecution and joy as families were able to see their loves ones (albeit in the dock) in some cases for the first time in many months.

The atmosphere was further enlivened by Turkish air force planes flying overhead on low level sorties and in the distance one could hear the booming loud speaker of a solidarity rally calling for the abandonment of the trial and the release of the detainees.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, in January will assume its presidency, and it is also an applicant to join the European Union.

Lawyer after lawyer pointed out that the norms of the European Convention of Human Rights are being breached in this trial as well as the norms of collection of evidence and that, in reality, it was the public who were being put on trial by the Turkish state.

Later in the day, the judge ruled peremptorily against the bail application and the following morning opened the proceedings after, once again, going through the tedium of identifying the proceedings. He also ruled that the entire 7,500 page indictment will be read out and that he would not accept any evidence presented other than in Turkish.

This indictment process will take at least a month and the trial will begin sometimes next year and could go on for years.

Meanwhile, there are well over 1,000 other BDP members in prison awaiting their own indictment and trial. Thousands of live have been lost in this search for identity of the Kurdish people and as with any other civil conflict in the world, there has to be a political solution based on dialogue.

Keeping Ocalan, the PKK leader in prison on an island in the Marmara Sea and imprisoning the leaders of the legal BDP party will not bring about peace and justice, but it will be a signal to young and very angry Kurdish people that there is no political road open to them.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North