Margaret Owen: Blogs from Istanbul during fifth KCK lawyers trial hearing

Margaret Owen OBE, along with barrister Melanie Gingell and solicitor Ali Has, has continued  her excellent work as international trial monitor at the latest hearing of the KCK trial of 46 Kurdish lawyers, which took place last Thursday. Below are a series of blog posts written by Margaret about the ongoing protests in Istanbul, and of course about the latest developments in the trial.

Tuesday June 18th. Istanbul. Midnight.

We arrived in Istanbul late tonight, half expecting to find armed police, and even the army, blocking roads from the airport to the city, but all was strangely quiet.

Our taxi driver surprised us by saying that the city centre and Taksim square were deserted, and that the BBC and foreign media had grossly exaggerated the protest movement. He was quite angry at our questions and told us that now the demonstrations were all over and everyone had gone home.

His outburst clearly revealed which half of the population he belonged with, for my Guardian, read during the flight, reported that the government threatens to call in the military to quell protests in Turkey. This would be a very dramatic turn in Turkish politics, especially since Erdogan has greatly curtailed  the power of the army that has toppled governments four times in the last forty years.

Tomorrow morning we will find out what is really happening and will try to interview some of the 50 lawyers who were arrested, beaten and tortured on June 11th when they gathered in a peaceful demonstration to condemn the actions of the police who used water canon and tear gas indiscriminately.

We will also hope to find out more about the status of prosecutions processed against the doctors who volunteered their services to treat those wounded by police violence.  There have been 5,000 injured and 5 people dead due to the brutalities of the police. The doctors have been charged with ” supporting terrorism”

It is clear that Turkey is now bitterly divided. 50 per cent of its citizens have had enough of Erdogan’s authoritarianism, his shift away from the secular state to one more Islamic, and his ordering the terrible violent attacks on protestors.  There is huge anger that Erdogan accused the protestors, who  came from many different social, economic and political backgrounds,  and now stand with the Kurds demanding their democratic rights of being “manipulated by terrorists and foreigners”

All these recent developments may have some bearing on the 5th hearing of the trial of the 45 Kurdish lawyers, that takes place in the courtroom by Silivri Prison on Wednesday, June 20th, some 40 miles outside Istanbul. We could take bets on this, so uncertain is the outcome. Yet these lawyers have been in detention for a year and a half.

The judge has said he will only give one day for the hearing, so again, there will insufficient time for defence arguments to be properly heard. Besides a key witness for the defence is the Kurdish leader himself, but the government will not let him out of his island incarceration.

We all hope for acquittals or releases on bail, but recent polls show that support for Erdogan’s.  AKP party has held steady so it seems unlikely the government will order the prosecutor to drop the charges.  The release of all the thousands of political prisoners was one of the BDP’s  (Kurdish political party) demands in context of current peace talks between the Prime Minister and the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

More tomorrow when we meet with the Istanbul Bar and with the lawyers from other country delegations.

Wednesday June 19th. Istanbul

We will meet the lawyers of the Istanbul Bar for a briefing on the 5th hearing of the Kurdish lawyers trial in the evening. They are all in another court this day, defending 22 journalists in one of the KCK trials that have been going on, with constant adjournments,for years.

So we stroll down to Taksim Square and the adjoining Gezi Park to see if anything is going on since the police emptied these sites on Monday.  It was the AKP decision to remove the park and build a shopping mall on the site, without any consultation with the people, that sparked the first protests  three weeks ago and which grew igniting mass demonstrations against Erdogan and his dictatorial policies all over Turkey.

Taksim had been cleaned, and the park had been cordoned off.  But now instead of thousands of people shouting and carrying anti –Erdogan placards there are the “silent standing” men and women. Totally silent, intent and still they stand before the giant picture of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.  All through the day, in spite of the heat in the brilliant sunshine, they are joined by others.  There are masses of police everywhere, in park and square, but these people standing as still as statues are untouchable by the police.  In the park, now the government has dropped its shopping mall idea, new trees are being planted. The police have cordoned off the park and are relaxing on the grass. But there are many of them.

We ask them about the three weeks of protests, the violence and the injuries they inflicted. Like our taxi-driver the night before, they were quick to say that the foreign press exaggerated and that the problems were all due to extremists and criminals. They had not heard of the arrests of the lawyers on June 11th or the violence they suffered.  One young officer even suggested that “We have the capability to train police in other European countries how to use only proportionate force to keep law and order”.

At the offices of the Istanbul Bar we were given further information on recent developments which make for pessimism about the outcomes of tomorrow’s case. “This is the largest and worse attack on lawyers in the history of our Republic” declared one of the leading lawyers who will be speaking in court tomorrow.

100 lawyers have been arrested in Diyarbakir, 4 in Ankara, 45 in Istanbul,

Another 30 lawyers are under investigation.   Now there are protests all over Turkey.  We learnt too of the indignities and brutalities inflicted on the lawyers who had, on June 11th, issued a press release condemning the use of water canon and tear gas on peaceful Taksim protesters.  How they had been arrested in their own courthouse on the orders of the Chief Prosecutor; and their files, case papers seized. How these  lawyers had been forced to lie on the ground with their arms and hands tied behind their backs, and how 50 of them  had been detained for many hours, although no charges have been filed.

As for the Taksim Square protests, 253 people were arrested and detained in one week.  But the Turkish media barely reported on these demonstrations. On one of the worst nights, CNN Turkey, chose to screen a film about penguins than show film of the disturbances.

This is the background to the trial.  With only one day for the hearing and 30 lawyers needing to present defences, there will be time probably for only five submissions. The case will probably be adjourned yet again for another 3 months.  There is little expectation that the  Prosecutor will withdraw the charges. Always the lawyers are being punished for simply doing their job, defending their client.

But all over Turkey now there is far greater awareness of the erosion of civic rights, the stifling of a free press, the attacks on freedom of expression, and now the persecution of the legal profession.  And all this repression, aimed to totally eliminate Kurdish civil society and Kurdish participation in Turkey’s institutions and decision-making is occurring when Erdogan is supposed to be in negotiations with the Kurds to forge a lasting peace.  Such a peace must be built on democracy, equality and an independent justice system.  So what happens tomorrow has wider implications than just the freedom of the lawyers.

MO_Taksim 200613Thursday June 20th. Istanbul

Final Blog on the Kurdish Lawyers’ trial, the 5th hearing held in the Sivilri Prison Courtroom, outside Istanbul.

As we, the international observers feared and predicted, while still hoping for a miracle change in the minds of judge, prosecutor and government, the case against the 45 Kurdish lawyers continues.

Of the twenty-two still in detention, only seven were released on bail, leaving fifteen lawyers still incarcerated.  The next hearing will be on September 17th.

This hearing was held in a huge new courthouse in the prison grounds, the building of which was only completed a month ago.  In the rear end of the vast chamber congregated relatives of the defendants: not only wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, but many small children, all desperate to catch a glimpse of their loved one.  The moment the 45 defendants appeared from the stairs leading up to the front of the court, the relatives got to their feet, clapped loudly and waved their hands, while the small children called out excitedly “baba, baba” (father). One tiny girl kept calling out to her father so insistently in Kurdish  “Baba, ben seni ozledim” (father I miss you), climbing up on the metal barrier that separated the defendants from the rest of us, that in compassion, and in spite of the hostile glances of the armed police, one intrepid lawyer carried the triumphant child right up to the defendants’ enclosure and put her, just for a short minute, into her father’s arms.  It was a brief moment of real humanity in the otherwise kafkaesque scenario of this purely political trial applauded by all of us, the relatives and the international observers.

With only one day allocated to the hearing it was clear that only a few of the defendants would be able to defend the charges against them.  The practice of constant adjournments because there is no time for defendants to be heard is punitive, and as one advocate argued, a form of torture, because it results in such long pre-trial detentions lasting years, traumatising not just the imprisoned lawyers but their families outside.

A major issue of contention was the status of a statement made by a witness for the defence, Irfan Dundar.  He had retracted an earlier statement he had made, relied on by the prosecution, in which he had provided information accusing his fellow lawyers of belonging to an illegal terrorist organisation, led by Ocalan.  Dundar, now living far from Istanbul, in Bursa, claimed in the retraction that he had been under
duress from the police and this first statement was not only untrue but had not been written by him. Although summoned to Sivilri court, he had not appeared.  All the lawyers argued that since that this evidence should be disregarded, since the witness could not be cross-examined in court.

There was only time for some six defendants to present their defences to the judge, Mehmet Ekinci, who has presided over all the hearings. But now that, at long last, Kurdish can be spoken in court, but must by translated by an interpreter, submissions take twice as long. There is much are repetition, much political commentary and comments about Kurdish history, and also the political symbolism of these trials of lawyers and other Kurdish activists and politicians in the context of
the current peace negotiations, and the Taksim square protests so violently put down.

However, the details exposed by the defendants as they attacked the “fantasies and lies” in the indictments were substantive and compelling, revealing the extraordinary lengths that the authorities will go to nail the lawyers down. For example, just to own, have on one’s bookshelves any books by Ocalan was used as evidence of “membership of an illegal organisation”.

One lawyer defendant told the judge “I and my colleagues trained with you and the prosecutor in the same law faculty.  You were ‘government-minded’; we were ‘liberal-minded’.  I would rather be in this courtroom as a defendant, than be in your shoes as people who wrote these indictments”.

Indeed, the so-called “evidence” was mostly ludicrous and made-up, based on speculations that such ordinary bits of paper like receipts from dry cleaning shops, an Imrali (the island prison of Ocalan) boat ticket or odd photographs showing that the accused had walked past an Internet cafe, evidenced activity in some illegal
organisation. If unlawfully intercepted telephone conversations included references to Imrali, a boat trip, or Ocalan himself, these were all used as evidence of criminal engagement.

Again and again the accused lawyers and the lawyers defending them demanded that Ocalan, as their key witness, the one who could verify that no “leadership organisation” existed, be brought to court.

Also repeatedly, bail was requested for all of those charged, since there was no risk that anyone would abscond, tamper with evidence, threaten witnesses for the prosecution. Impressive oratory by such experienced lawyers as Ercan Kanar begged the Judge to take account of the damage to Turkey’s international reputation as these political trials continued, as Turkey’s prisons were overflowing with political
prisoners.

“We Kurds should never have been, for 90 years, so hunted, so oppressed, so vilified, tortured and killed.  18,000 Kurds have been murdered extra-judicially by government agents.” This persecution of lawyers must stop. He ended his speech with a damning critique of the anti-terror laws that could be so manipulated as to imprison lawyers who were simply doing their job, defending those accused of crimes against the State. Now, not just the Kurds, but all Turkey’s citizens, are being made aware of the huge damage to democracy itself.

We, the international lawyer delegations will be back for the 6th hearing on September, 17th.  In the meantime, the peace process must go on.  Who knows what might happen to Erdogan and his AKP party in the intervening months?
Today again Taksim is crowded with the silent statue-like “standing man”
protesters and I am on my way to join them on my last morning in Istanbul.

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