Westminster J&P joins delegation to observe mass trial in Turkey

St John Vianney's, West Green

St John Vianney's, West Green

Father Joe Ryan, Parish Priest at St John Vianney's in West Green, north London,  who chairs the Westminster Justice & Peace Commission,  is joining an observer delegation at a mass trial of Kurdish politicians and human rights defenders, which resumes on 13 January 2011, in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Fr Joe writes:

While western politicians, including David Cameron, laud Turkey for its supposed democratic credentials, countless Kurds languish in Turkish prisons for non-violent political offences. In the last year and a half, between 840 and 1,700 Kurdish political activists have been thrown in jail on 'terror' charges.  Most of those targeted are from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the leftist and pro-Kurdish political party that controls nearly 100 municipalities and has an influential group in parliament.

Notably, the arrest operations began on April 14, 2009 - two weeks after the BDP routed the ruling party in critical local elections, and one day after the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) declared a unilateral ceasefire in order to give peaceful politics a chance to resolve the conflict.  The detainees include eight elected mayors from the BDP, former members of parliament, and some of the most talented and experienced leaders of the BDP and its youth and women's branches.  Turkey claims they're all part of the Democratic Communities of Kurdistan/Turkey Assembly (KCK/TM), described as the urban branch of the PKK.

18th October saw the start of the mass trial of 151 of the most high profile politicians and human rights defenders in Diyarbakir, present was a delegation including Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP and barrister and Director of Widows of Peace through Democracy, Margaret Owen and other lawyers who were there to observe the proceedings.


The trial began in Diyarbakir on 18 October.  Most of the court proceedings have been consumed by the judge’s insistence on reading a summary of the indictment against the suspects, a mammoth document spanning 7,587 pages.  Individual defences were just beginning at the time the trial was delayed. The decision was taken on 11 November 2010 following an impasse resulting from the suspects’ insistence on delivering their defences in their native language, Kurdish; a request the prosecution has continuously refused.

Most of those in the dock have been in pre-trial custody for extreme lengths of time, some as long as 19 months.  These excessive periods of detention not only constitute a flagrant violation of the right to a speedy trial; they lack any logical basis, as none of the suspects are even accused of using violence or weapons. Instead, the “crimes” of the Kurdish politicians include participating in civil demonstrations, issuing press statements, criticizing state policies, participating in conferences and commissions, and other activities that politicians and human rights defenders routinely participate in everywhere in the world.


The group, Peace in Kurdistan, which has long campaigned against the repression of Kurdish political activism in Turkey, supports the immediate release of all imprisoned Kurdish politicians and appeals to the Turkish government to initiate a comprehensive conflict resolution process involving all relevant political actors.  The international community must exert constructive pressure in this regard. Otherwise, the Turkish state’s ongoing criminalization of peaceful political opposition threatens to further entrench the bloody conflict in Kurdistan. As Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, recently noted, "When it comes to the Kurdish question, the courts in Turkey are all too quick to label political opposition as terrorism…When you close off the space for free speech and association, it has the counterproductive effect of making armed opposition more attractive."


I have been asked to be part of a delegation observing the trial as it re-opens on January 13th at Diyarbakir. It would seem that with some international observers present at the trial, it helps the “tone” of proceedings. Some MPs and members of the legal profession will be present. There will also be an opportunity for us to meet the families of the detainees, politicians, lawyers and local communities’ leaders. Obviously this will give a deeper understanding of the complexities of all that is involved in this trial.

I will be there in my capacity as Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Westminster Diocese. It is also a fact that a large number of Kurdish and Turkish people within the boundaries of the parish of St John Vianney, West Green, London – N15, N4 and N17. It is significant too that within the parish is the Kurdish Centre at Portland Gardens.

I go as an independent witness. I will try to report back and tell my story without prejudice. I am not sure if I am really looking forward to the trip, yet I feel privileged to have been invited. Watch this space!

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