Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eyewitness in Turkey

A political purge is under way in Turkey. Since 2009, thousands of activists from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have been arrested in police raids and interned in extended pre-trial detention. Following elections in June 2011, the BDP currently has 36 members of the Turkish Parliament, elected mainly with the support of Turkey's substantial Kurdish minority.

Now, a series of trials has begun. In the latest of these, more than 200 people are before the ‘Tribunal with Special Powers’, charged with support for, and involvement in, the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK), which is a banned organisation. This grouping, it is alleged by the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Erdogan, acts as the 'urban branch' of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), also banned in Turkey because of its long-term armed campaign against the Turkish state. On this pretext, the Turkish authorities continue to arrest large numbers of activists throughout the country in regular raids. In recent weeks, prominent Kurdish trade unionists were detained.

Most of those before the court during the mass trial in Silivri are Kurdish members of the BDP, but some are Turkish supporters of the party, including Professor Busra Ersanli, the distinguished scholar and writer, and Ayse Berktay, the respected peace activist and translator. Ragip Zarakolu, a celebrated publisher of political commentaries and other writings, who has this year been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, was also in court, although he had been released from pre-trial detention following an international outcry. His request to address the court was not granted during open session.

Ayse Berktay has now been remanded in detention until the court reconvenes in October, together with most of the accused, although she has already been detained for nine months, since October 2011. On 13 July, the judges granted bail for an additional 16 accused, including Professor Busra Ersanli.

Our international delegation attended four of the eight days of proceedings in Silivri. The cavernous court house stands next to Europe’s largest prison, housing some 11,000 detainees beneath high walls and dozens of watchtowers. During these days, there was time to read only part of the 2,400 page indictment to the court. On day seven, defendants had about an hour to make personal pleas, strictly in the Turkish language as the court refused to hear statements in Kurdish, although this was the preferred tongue of many of those in the dock. Sixteen individual defendants made such pleas.

Lawyers representing defendants collectively, as well as those representing some individual defendants, made submissions lasting about six hours during days seven and eight. Not all lawyers who wanted to speak had the opportunity to address the court. Those who did exposed serious inaccuracies and shortcomings in the lengthy indictment. The prosecutor spoke only briefly to oppose requests made to the court by defence lawyers.

The international delegation of three persons was excluded from the final session of the hearing, together with all the many relatives and friends of the accused. The reasons for this are unclear. We were therefore prevented from hearing the judgment of the court in refusing requests for release for many of the 200 people on trial. Apparently, the court, using some new provisions, granted only 16 more people bail, while many others continue to be interned, awaiting October's hearing. Why people are treated so differently is not at all clear, so that the decision appears somewhat arbitrary.

Based on what we heard in court, our impression is that the indictment is extremely thin. There was not one convincing argument supporting the heavy accusation of terrorism. The elements of the dossier that have been presented in court are mostly related to membership of the BDP, or to the fact that the defendants were attending or giving courses at the political academy of the BDP. We are astonished that the judges decided to keep so many persons in prison on the basis of the inadequate evidence we heard. There is no relationship nor proportionality between the facts as presented, and the extreme measure of keeping so many of the accused under lock and key for long periods. In Turkey, people may be held for up to ten years in pre-trial detention.

A similar and related trial of lawyers has now commenced in Istanbul. This will be followed by a trial of journalists in September. International delegations are attending.

The proceedings in Silivri were accompanied by massive displays of force on the part of the jandarma security services, replete with armed riot squads, two water cannons, tear gas, and alsation dogs. Such intimidatory displays are certainly inimical to democratic politics, bringing to mind, as they do, modern Turkey's troubled history of repressing free and open debate. They also seem to reflect an absence of public confidence in the court. This lack of trust may, perhaps, be explained in part by a recent assessment of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, who has characterised the attitudes exhibited by Turkish judges and prosecutors as ‘state-centred’ rather than rights-centred.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in the Westminster Parliament, in its recent report on Turkey, recommended that the British Foreign Office should ensure that its Turkish partners are ‘in no doubt’ that the shortcomings in the Turkish justice system are damaging Turkey’s international reputation and leading to human rights abuses. Such damaging conduct was all too apparent in Silivri.

Tony Simpson
Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

Patrick Deboosere
Professor Vrije Universiteit Brussels

17 July 2012

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ayse Berktay Free Her Now

Ayse Berktay Hacimirzaoglu was one of the main animators of the World Tribunal on Iraq, which held sessions in Brussels, Tokyo and New York before concluding in Istanbul in 2005. She proposed the Tribunal in 2002, at a meeting of the European Network for Peace and Human Rights, which the Russell Foundation convened in the European Parliament in Brussels. She works as a translator, and her Turkish translation of Black Beauty has been widely acclaimed. She has been held in prison in Turkey since October 2011. An international delegation is currently in attendance at the trial of Ayse Berktay (Hacimirzaoglu) and over 200 other people in Silivri, Turkey. The trial is due to end on Friday.

For further details please visit the Ayse Berktay Free Her Now Facebook page: and

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Eyewitness in Turkey

Punishing the Innocent in the Name of Justice

What we* are witnessing in Silivri (near Istanbul) nowadays is simply a scar of shame on the forehead of humanity. Otherwise, philosophers, theorists, humanists, law makers, activists should work on finding new definitions for all the values we were taught in school, above all justice, because what is happening here is using the devices of law and justice to criminilize and punish the innocent, in the name of peace, justice and, of course, fighting terrorism.

Early in the morning of the first day of the trial, 2 July, hundreds of people gathered in Taksim Square, the main square of Istanbul, to catch buses to Silivri where the court is held, only to find that the police were waiting for them and preventing buses from going there. The police actually did this. However, some people were luckier and managed to go, taking private cars, taxis, and so on. We were among them. After driving for more than an hour we found ourselves in front of the police again, on some highway, in the middle of nowhere.

The court was held in the ‘The Camp of the Institution for Punishment Execution in Silivri’, a huge facility cut off from anythıng else in the middle of the countrysıde. The police had just built two long walls of barricade wire on both sides of the road, and placed checkpoints where dozens of people were negotiating with the guards to let them pass. So we had to leave the car and go on foot through the checkpoints and the wire-walled road. There were tens of police trucks, hundreds of military police, who are called ‘gendarme’ here, many of them with shields, helmets and sticks. My Turkish friends advised me not to open my camera, and to use the mobile camera if possible; preferably, not to use it at all. We made a plan on what to do in case of custudy, made sure that we had our passports and IDs, as we do not speak Turkish, and it would be difficult to convince a policeman that we do not mean any harm, just to attend the court, which was not allowed, as we were soon to learn.

We also discovered that arriving at the court was the easiest part of the story; entering and attending the trial was another. It wasn’t the case that anyone was allowed to enter; only those who have special permission. As a journalist, I managed to pass through the gate and security with the repeated efforts of my Turkish friends. But there literally hundreds of people who couldn’t. Many were gathering at the gate, with their hands raised, holding IDs, begging the police to let them in. It was immpossible for them to be heard or attended to. Others, especially elderly women, most probably mothers and wives of the detainees, were standing or sitting in rows outside holding sticks on top of which were sheets of paper with the names of their loved ones, who were behind the bars.

I am in Istanbul for a round table that is organized by the Bogaziçi University on the Arab Spring. When I learned about the trial I went to Silivri in solidarity and support of my friend, Ayşe Berktay, who was arrested in October 2011 and has been detained for the past nine months. I understand that her travels in connection with the World Tribunal of Iraq, which she helped to organise, and which had its culminating session in Istanbul in 2005, are cited as evidence against her in the indictment. Ironically, Turkey was one of few countries in the region which refused to participate in that invasion or allow its land and airspace to be used in the war. Ayşe worked hard for several years in organizing and participating in a series of tribunals on the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. I attended many of those tribunals to testify on the situation of İraq under the occupation. I met Ayşe there, I listened to what she had to say. There was absolutely nothing in what she said or did that could possibly endanger her country and people in any imaginable way. I want to say that to whoever is interested to know; the Court should be the first and most interested of them.

I knew Ayşe to be a very honourable, dignified and intelligent person. She was always the voice of reason and peace. Always against violence, and for justice and respect of human rights. Always calling for resolving problems through political dialogue and negotiation.

Inside the court, the detainees were sitting in some 13 rows, 15 detainees in each, in the middle of the court. Men and women of different ages, holding up their hands to show the V sign of victory. Most of them were wearing black in commemoration of comrades. I spotted Ayşe in the third row. On the right, there were long rows of dozens of lawyers, and on the left, the journalists. Towards the back there were many people, probably families, friends, organizations and unions. There were at least a hundred policemen surrounding the detainees, changing shifts every now and then.

The head of the court opened proceedings with a few words, then the defence lawyer, Meral Daniş Beştaş, gave a long speech which my Turkish friends said was very good. She made important points on using the Kurdish language so that the detainees could understand; on defining the nature of the court as political, not criminal, and thus constitutional; on the circumstances of the arrests (in which every one could be arrested); that the detainees should be released until sentences were passed; and, fınally, that the detainees are treated as criminals before a judgment was handed down.

What is not understandable is how some 200 people are put on trial and judged collectively. Logically, each one of them has his or her own case, which is different from the others. If Ayşe’s trips abroad were considered illegal activities, another person, for example, Buşra Ersanli, an intellectual and professor, was arrested after giving a lecture on women’s rights, and so on.

Many of the detainees were professors, writers, such as Hasan Ozguneş, who talked during the trial, intellectuals, publishers, journalists, and human rights activists. They are among the active members of society, people who dedicate their time and efforts to create a better world, a better country, Turkey in this case, and who should be thanked and cherished, not persecuted as criminals. Many of them are from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Thus, the court is highly political. Commentators here say that the court is an attempt to render the party illegal because it is accused of supporting terrorism. In our world of post-war terrorism, any activity could be criminalized as terrorism, although we do not know exactly what that term means. The lawyer, who is vice president of the BDP party, said that they are not trying to divide Turkey; rather, they want to build a multi-cultural state in Turkey, like many states in the world, and they don’t have any secret agenda against their country.

All the time during the trial, with what my friends managed to translate for me, from what I heard from people around, I found myself living in an Orwellian or Kafkaesque world where things are the opposite of how they look, and words contradict their own meaning. This is the Turkish version of the American Patriotic Act, the new McCarthyism. This is the age of war of terrorism.

Eman Ahmed Khammas
The author is an Iraqi journalist

*International Delegation in Solidarity with Ayşe Berktay

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