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Türkiye: Kurdish Politicians Convicted in Unjust Mass Trial

(Ankara, May 17, 2024) – A Turkish court’s conviction on May 16, 2024, of 24 Kurdish politicians on bogus charges of crimes against the state follows a manifestly political and unjust trial, Human Rights Watch and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project said today. The court sentenced the 24 to prison terms ranging from 9 to 42 years, while acquitting 12 other politicians who had been on trial with them. 

The politicians were from the parliamentary opposition party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including former party co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. The ruling confirms that the Turkish authorities instrumentalized the criminal justice system to secure the politicians’ prolonged arbitrary detention on baseless charges and remove them from political life as elected representatives. 

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdağ, and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest move in a campaign of persecution that has robbed mainly Kurdish voters of their chosen representatives, undermined the democratic process, and criminalized lawful political speech,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Using bogus criminal proceedings to remove democratically elected Kurdish politicians from political life will do nothing to end the Turkish state’s decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”     

In the Ankara 22nd Assize Court hearing, the court sentenced Selahattin Demirtaş to 42 years in prison, Figen Yüksekdağ to 30 years, and Gültan Kışanak, the former mayor of Diyarbakır, to 12 years, while releasing Kışanak and four others pending appeal. Ahmet Türk, the serving mayor of Mardin, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court ordered the continued detention of 13 defendants, including Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ. The former HDP members of parliament, elected mayors, and party officials have stood trial for the past three years on multiple charges, ranging from attempting to “destroy the unity and integrity of the state” and “membership of a terrorist organization” to “murder.” The evidence against them, as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights, consists almost exclusively of their party’s social media posts and political speeches.

The core accusation in the 3,530-page indictment naming 108 defendants—of whom 36 stood trial—centers on four social media postings on October 6, 2014, from the Twitter account of the HDP alongside the politicians’ political speeches. 

The prosecution added to the case file, several years after the events in question, a few statements, including from anonymous witnesses, making unsubstantiated and generalized assertions against the politicians. The addition of these dubious statements to the case file followed an arbitrary procedure that failed to respect the defendants’ basic fair trial guarantees. 

The party’s 2014 tweets called on supporters to protest the ongoing siege of the Kurdish-majority Syrian town of Kobane by the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS). The indictment takes these tweets as grounds to hold the accused politicians directly responsible for the ensuing protests in 32 cities across Türkiye from October 6 to 8, 2014, in which violent clashes resulted in at least 37 deaths, the circumstances of which have never been fully elucidated. The trial of the politicians has been dubbed the “Kobane trial” in the media because of the reference to the Kobane protests.  

The indictment charged the politicians with up to 30 offenses, including the main crime of attempting to “destroy the unity and integrity of the state,” as well as “murder,” “damage to property,” and “theft” in relation to the deaths and violence during the protests for which it held them liable. Ongoing criminal case files against the politicians in different courts charging them with crimes such as “membership of a terrorist organization” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” were then merged with the “Kobane trial” casefile.  

The Ankara court’s verdict, which the convicted politicians said they would appeal, is the latest development in a long campaign of persecution against the pro-Kurdish rights HDP. The persecution has been led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Human Rights Watch and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project said. 

The crackdown on the politicians followed the breakdown in 2015 of intensive efforts by the party and the government to bring an end to the decades-long conflict between the armed PKK and the Turkish state. In May 2016, in a rapid sequence of events, the government led a controversial move to lift the parliamentarians’ parliamentary immunity through a temporary constitutional amendment. On November 4, 2016, leading HDP members of parliament, and on separate dates elected mayors from a sister party, were arrested and jailed on terrorism charges . 

Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, the HDP’s former co-chairs, have remained in prison ever since. The party itself is fighting a case seeking its closure before Türkiye’s Constitutional Court

The Ankara court’s verdict also flagrantly flouts two binding judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR determined, in a judgment pertaining to Demirtaş in December 2020 and one pertaining to Yüksekdağ and 12 others in October 2022, that their detention on the basis of speeches and social media postings constituted a politically motivated move to silence them, “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, the very core of the concept of a democratic society.” The ECtHR found that their rights to liberty, to freedom of expression, and to run for election had been violated and that the politicians must be released immediately. 

The alleged facts forming the basis on which Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ are detained, and which form the basis of their conviction, are substantially the same as those contained in the proceedings which the ECtHR found to be insufficient grounds for their detention. 

“The sentencing of Demirtaş, Yüksekdağ, and several other prominent opposition politicians in Türkiye to lengthy prison terms for their just political advocacy for Kurdish rights is yet another blow to hopes for positive change in the state of human rights, rule of law, and democracy in the country,” said Ayşe Bingöl Demir, director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project. “This latest conviction, alongside ongoing arbitrary and politically charged detentions, blatantly violates international human rights standards and disregards ECtHR judgments. The international community now faces a critical choice: remain silent and risk complicity in these repressive practices, or call them out and take robust action, including initiating proceedings designated for such serious breaches of international obligations.”


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