Meeting Report

24 October 2013

Turkey’s anti-terror legislation has come under fire once again as five lawyers who recently returned from Istanbul gave a damning critique of one of Turkey’s now notorious ‘KCK trials’ at a public event held a Garden Court Chambers.

The lawyers formed part of a 6-person strong delegation that observed the trial of 46 Kurdish lawyers, who are being prosecuted for their work defending imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.  What they witnessed, they told the meeting, was a political show trial taking place in the context of peace talks between Ocalan and the Turkish government that reveals far more about authoritarianism in Turkey than the supposed criminality of the defendants. The meeting was chaired by Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck University.

Panel, 9 Oct 2013
L-R: Ali Has, Mark Jones, Bill Bowring, Bronwen Jones, Margaret Owen, Hugo Charlton

The Kurdish lawyers have been made to face a justice system which is ‘quite incapable of delivering justice according to international standards’, said human rights barrister Margaret Owen. 16 of the 46 lawyers initially arrested have not been granted bail, with no explanation given as to why that might be, and they have only seen six days in court since their arrest in November 2011.

As barrister and trial monitor Bronwen Jones explained in detail, the use of intercept evidence and illegally recorded privileged conversations with their client in the prosecution case was further evidence of human rights violations and broke international standards on the rights and role of the lawyer. Indeed, the evidence presented is largely based on subjective police opinion and [1]

The trial is taking place in the largest courthouse in Europe, the Silivri prison complex outside Istanbul. Mark Jones, barrister at St Ives Chambers, revealed the courthouse was the size of a rugby pitch and had space for 240 lawyers and over 200 defendants at a time, which ‘begged the question, why would a country build a courtroom that size?” It certainly gives an idea of how Turkey plans to go about dispensing justice.

But with between 10,000 – 12,000 people imprisoned under Turkish anti-terror law since 2009 in the name of investigations into the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), one can presume that Turkey views courthouses such as this as quite necessary. In another trial, over 200 politicians and elected officials of the pro-Kurdish party, the BDP, are being tried together in a lengthy and arduous case that has been going on for over two years. Trade unionists, journalists, students, human rights defenders and members of Kurdish civil society have been arrested and tried in their hundreds.

All of this has resulted in Turkey having a third of the world’s prisoners classified as ‘terrorist’. As Mark Jones explained, this is ‘an assault on basic human rights of a scale not seen anywhere in the world’.

London-based solicitor Ali Has, who has been monitoring the trial since it began in 2012, went on to say that ‘“terrorist” is now the easiest profession to attain in Turkey’. Turkey’s current anti-terror law (TMY), which is excessively vague and open to arbitrary application, has been used to prosecute offences such as holding up a victory sign at a demonstration, throwing stones at the police, and protesting limitations on the right to protest.

Even speaking in the British parliament against Turkey’s human rights record has led to an indictment for well-known human rights barrister and writer Muharrem Erbey. Like the lawyers and the other thousands, he has also accused of ‘membership of an illegal organisation’ under the TMY.

After the speakers had finishing presenting, the open discussion began with an inevitable question, ‘How can these trials be happening alongside the peace process?’ And the answer came also from the floor: Perhaps precisely because they are an integral part of the peace process.

Indeed, the arrests began soon after local elections in 2009 that resulted in massive gains for the BDP. They have continued throughout this period of peace talks – which took place at first in secret and then later publicly – with the members of the Turkish intelligence organisation (MIT) and Ocalan.

Whilst it was acknowledged that democratic reforms have been introduced during this period, many expressed concern that these are little more than cultural concessions, intended not to empower but to pacify the Kurdish population while their political and civil movement is being dismantled. This sentiment has been echoed by PKK leader Cemil Bayik this week, who said that the reforms “didn’t even touch the anti-terror laws have out thousands of people behind bars”. “We silenced our weapons so that politics could speak, but now we see that politics is in prison”, he continued.[2] Indeed, the same question was raised at the meeting: how can the peace process continue with Ocalan and his lawyers still behind bars?

But with no internationally agreed definition of ‘terrorism’, Saleh Mamon of CAMPACC explained, legislation is often vague, broad, and as such too useful a political tool for repressive governments.

Furthermore, ever-more complex and sophisticated counter-terrorism strategies used by the West and its allies in the name of the war on terror means that an equally coordinated effort is required to fight against the abuse of such legislation, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign’s Estella Schmid argued. Turkey’s unique role in this global war must be exposed, particularly given Turkish support for Al Qaeda affiliated groups involved in violent clashes with Syrian Kurdish defence forces, the YPG.

This event, Anti-Terror Law and the Obstruction of Justice: The Implications of Mass Trials in Turkey for the Peace Process with the Kurds, took place in Garden Court Chambers on 9 October 2013. It was organised by Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, CAMPACC, Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, and the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights (ELDH). We would like to thank all the speakers for their contributions, as well as Professor Bill Bowring for chairing the meeting.


[1] Bronwen Jones’ report on the trial can be found here