Turkey: eyewitness report - mass trial of 151 Kurds

Father Joe Ryan, from the Westminster Justice & Peace Commission, recently attended the mass trial of 151 Kurdish politicians, lawyers and human rights activists in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Fr Joe was part of a UK delegation consisted of  Nasser Butt, Liberal Democrat politician and human rights activist; Omer Moore, Human Rights solicitor with Trott and Gentry Solicitors and Sanja Karakas, Human Rights lawyer.

The arrests and charges took place after elections in Turkey in March 2009, in which the  Kurdish candidates were very successful. No sooner did they take up office, and began to speak about Kurdish Human Rights, the arrests began. Arrests were made on the grounds that they did not act in the interest of Turkish security and stability as a nation. Many of those arrested are in prison for almost two years now. Many are not even sure of the charges brought against them.

A courthouse was build especially for the trial of those 151 selected prisoners. Many others are being tried in provincial courts at present. The trial began in October 2010. A full report is available, and in my report I need to presume that this has been read.

Much of the original trial time was taken up with the presentation of some of the 7,500 pages of charges held against the prisoners. Things came to a halt, when the court denied the prisoners the right to defend themselves in their own native Kurdish language. When the prisoners replied to the roll call in Kurdish, the judge refused to recognise their response, but yet was deemed to be present. The trial was postponed to January 13, 2011.

Trial Resumed – 13 January 2011: Diyarbakir: Our UK delegation was present when the trial re-opened on Thursday 13 January 2011. On the first two days, there were some 20 international observers present in the courtroom arena. There were MEPs, Human Rights supporters, lawyers, reporters and others. It was a great show of solidarity for the prisoners, their families and all involved in the trial. It was plain that the attitude of the Court/Judges took recognition of the presence of the international observers.

Security – Waiting ‘Lounge’: The security was high surrounding the courthouse. We advanced through the first two stages and then waited in a long corridor for the Judge to arrive.  This was a most valuable hour and a half. I used this time to move about with my interpreter, to meet as many people as possible. We met and spoke to lawyers working on the case; fellow observers, some prisoners on bail and especially the families and relatives of the prisoners.

Comments From People We Met: We approached one little huddle of women: an elderly woman identifies herself as the mother of two sons who are prisoners: “We are ‘simple country folk’, she said. My sons were involved in a demonstration. They didn’t cause trouble, but were arrested … What am I to do?” She was comforted by the group of women around her. She thanked us profusely for being there and for introducing ourselves.

One man we met had been arrested, in prison for 17 days and then allowed out on bail. He is a Human Rights activist and had been charged with writing material, the contents of which ‘undermined national security’. As many others stated he said: “We are not criminals, we are looking for freedom of speech and especially to be able to defend ourselves in our native Kurdish language …”

We met a mother and daughter whose husband /dad is in prison. He had been overheard on a mobile (phone tapping) saying something critical against the Turkish authorities. That was just one of several charges.

I asked the daughter: “Why are you in such good spirits and your father and the other prisoners are not in a state of depression …? She replied: “It is not just about us and our situation. This trial represents so many others who are also in prison and whose human rights are denied. We are lucky because our case is being held in a very public forum. There is a lot of publicity and this is good to highlight our cause. Thank you for being here and giving us your support. You will be able to explain to others what is happening to us, Kurdish people.”

We spoke at length to the wife of the Chair of the Human Rights Association, Diyarbakir, Muharren Erbey. Mrs Burcin Erbey was in the court at the trial and we had a chance to speak to her at length. She told us that her husband as Chair of Human Rights Association was very active in trying to secure justice for so many Kurdish people in Diyarbakir. She is a teacher; otherwise they would be destitute as her husband is in prison. They have two children -  9 and 4 year olds.

She said: ‘Her nine year old is very effected by the whole drama – goes very silent and she is fearful for her child’. She further commented: “I am very angry with the Turkish authorities. They are destroying our family. My husband is working for the rights of ordinary people and because of this, he is in prison. Can you please tell our story?”

She went on to speak about the prison conditions where her husband is held; she said: “The prisoners are very cold – four to a cell; they have to wear layers and layers of clothing but still find it difficult to keep warm.” Conditions are not good in prison.”
“Yes, we can go to visit for an hour once a week, three persons at a time. Then once a month there is a more open session for visiting. It is good to be able to make those visits,” she said.

“The extended family is very supportive. Without them life would be most difficult. Please tell our story when you return to England.”

I had one brief encounter with one limping reporter who had been hit by a rubber bullet the day before: “Yes, I’m fine, some of the others were not so lucky!”

Personally, because I suffer a little from asthma, the wafting teargas into the courtroom didn’t help my medical condition! The gas was still in the air when we emerged from the court. It was most uncomfortable, but did not prevent me following up all the contacts arranged by the BDP – The Peace and Democracy Party.

The organisers were most efficient, caring and helpful to us in our visit.

Question: “What do you want us to say on our return to the UK?”

This was the question we put to all the people we spoke to; lawyers, activists, families etc. The message was the same: “Tell our story. We are ordinary Kurdish people simply seeking justice for our families. We are not terrorists – but have been branded as such … it is terrible and unfair. Can you tell our story?

Courtroom Scene:

On the back wall, above the head of the Judges:


This statement sounds very reassuring – but I found no evidence emerging to substantiate the claim. On arrival the prisoners were there in the centre of the arena, surrounded by Jandarma (guards) but were 4 deep chatting, communicating and waving at family, friends and observers. Those we had met introduced us to them at a distance. It was a very moving moment.

The same proceedings followed – each prisoner’s name was called in Turkish; they responded in Kurdish; the lawyers identified themselves by passing the microphone one to another.

Statements were made by the defence lawyers, calling for better facilities for the prisoners during court breaks – the judge will write to the Public Prosecutor on this matter!!

Further statements on; the history of Turkey and how the Kurdish people have been marginalised. Quotes made from various Human Rights documentation and international law … all to present a case for the release of the prisoners whose human rights are denied.

At the end of the day – no bail was granted.

The next day’s court was along similar veins, but a whole series of new charges were added to the existing list on the 7,500 page document.

One fact struck me as I was listening to exchanges: ‘Did the Judge, obviously an intelligent person, really believe the charges he was reading out?’ It defies human logic and intelligence, in my mind!

Prisoners are given a chance to speak to the court when they raise their hands:
“Mr Judge, I am a Kurdish person (microphone turned off), I would like to make my defence in my native Kurdish language.”

Judge: “I do not recognise this language … Mr. Lawyer … can you translate for me?” And so, this would go on and on with several prisoners.

Who is really on trial?

This trial has reversed the tables on to the Turkish authorities. It would seem that now the reality is the Turkish Nation is on trial for denying the Kurdish prisoners to speak in their mother tongue. The denying people the very existence of their language, there is a much deeper reality; you deny identity, culture, history and the very essence of one’s existence. There is an arrogance expressed by the Turkish court in this instance. We experienced first hand the denial of human rights. Why should one be imprisoned and on trial for exercising your legal and civil duties as an elected representative of your local authority. It defies simple common sense, not to speak of just laws, national or international.

The court adjourned until Tues 18 January. The same pattern emerged then. Still no bail granted. The court adjourned until Friday 28 January 2011.


It is very difficult to see how this trial will pan out. Both parties consider they are correct in their approach. The defendants see real value in being able to appear in court, and ‘expose’ the Turkish Judicial system for what it is in their eyes. The Court will say: “We have set up this special trial; the defendants refuse to ‘recognise’ the court, so they have had a fair chance to be heard, but refused to comply.”

I understand that an appeal can be made to a higher court. We watch this space!

Signed: Joe Ryan
25 January 2011

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