Written by Margaret Owen (pictured), International Trial Observer and Barrister

Margaret 2018
Friday 8th June

I have returned to Istanbul in order to observe the fifth hearing of the trial of former HDP co-chair: Selahattin Demirtas. Given that Turkey’s presidential election is only two weeks away, we the international observers, anticipate a final verdict.Selahattin Demirtas has been detained since November 2016 in Edirne prison under anti-terror law. He faces numerous charges and is accused of making terrorist propaganda.

The prosecution and trial of Demirtas has been one of the greatest scandals in Europe of recent years. The hearing, taking place at the biggest court house in Europe, the Caglayan Justice Palace, is of the utmost importance as it is meant to be the AKP’s final word on the case. If Demirtas is convicted then it will determine the rest of his political career, and very likely silence the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), who are the most effective opposition currently in Turkish politics to President Erdogan and the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party).

Nevertheless, in spite of Demirtas’ incarceration, the HDP executive board has nominated and declared him their candidate for the 2018 presidential election, which will take place on 24th June. There are six other opposition candidates also standing against President Erdogan, but these are empowered by coalitions, whereas Demirtas as the HDP nominee stands alone.

Adding fuel to the already tense atmosphere around the trial is the verdict of the PTT (People’s Tribunal on Turkey) delivered to the European Parliament at the end of May. The verdict found that that the Turkish government is guilty of war crimes against the Kurds, not just in Turkey itself, but also abroad in Syria.

Upon arrival at the court it was noticeable that there were very few international observers present. It was later revealed that Demirtas himself had requested supporters to stay away in order to prevent demonstrations that could shift the focus of the election and his candidacy onto the trial.

There were in fact only three international observers and five diplomats in attendance from the British, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Dutch embassies. In the small courtroom, five lawyers were there to represent Demirtas but neither Demirtas himself or his co-defendant, Siri Sureya Onder, were physically present in court.

Ercan Kaner, speaking as leading counsel for the defence, requested a long adjournment for further time for his side to prepare. He pointed to the errors of the court in previous judgments and cited precedents from the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) jurisdiction to support his submissions of Demirtas and Onder being physically present to offer their defence. This was on the back of the Court’s previous decision to effectively consider their defences as having been made in absentia.

Reading between the lines it is clear that an adjournment until after the looming presidential election was the most viable ‘political’ decision that the judge could make that suited both sides, the AKP and HDP. Given the acceptance of Demirtas’ candidacy by the electoral board, the AKP no longer stands to benefit from a swift imposition of a prison sentence as this would be disastrous from a publicity standpoint. Equally for the HDP, they can now concentrate on making gains in the election.

The trial was adjourned until 7th September 2018. It will resume at the Silivri Court in the Silivri Prison Complex.