Turkey starts trial of Kurdish Kobani protesters
ISTANBUL--More than 100 people linked to a pro-Kurdish party went on trial Monday in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, for their alleged involvement in violent protests nearly seven years ago.
Prosecutors have charged the 108 defendants with 29 crimes, including the murders of 37 people and “disrupting the unity and integrity of the state,” and are seeking multiple life sentences and thousands of years in prison. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, says the trial is politically-motivated and is the latest in a severe government crackdown against them.
Among the defendants are the former leaders of the HDP. Although they did not directly carry out violent acts, they have been charged with these offences for allegedly organising and inciting the violence.
Only 34 of the accused are present at the trial, some via video links. The rest have fled and are being tried in absentia. The opening hearing took place in a tense atmosphere. Lawyers walked out of the courtroom twice, saying the right of defence was being undermined. The defendants said they would not answer the court’s questions without their lawyers. Protests erupted in the chamber. The trial was adjourned until May 3.
All the charges relate to the “Kobani protests” that took place October 6-8, 2014, as the Islamic State group was closing in on the Syrian town of Kobani, right across the Turkish border. As IS took over the countryside and entered the town, Syrian Kurdish militants fought the extremists in street-to-street battles.
Many ethnic Kurds in Turkey were frustrated by what they saw as the Turkish government’s inaction to help defeat IS. They were demanding Turkey open the border and allow in help.
But Turkey saw the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, YPG, as an existential threat with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK. The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and is considered a terror group by Turkey, the United States and others. At the time of the fighting in Kobani, the government and the PKK’s imprisoned leader were engaged in peace negotiations, with HDP politicians acting as go-betweens. The cease-fire collapsed in 2015.
Smaller protests were already taking place but they turned bigger after the HDP, on October 6, tweeted an “urgent call” for people to take to the streets and protest the IS attacks and the Turkish government’s “embargo” on Kobani. It said the situation was critical in Kobani.
The protests turned violent but the HDP maintains their call was peaceful and that there were provocateurs. The 3,350-page indictment says 37 people died, 761 — including hundreds of law enforcement officers — were wounded, 197 schools were burned, 269 public buildings damaged, 1,731 homes and businesses looted and 1,230 cars made unusable.
Turkey eventually allowed Iraqi Kurdish forces to cross through Turkey into Syria but what changed the tide of the clashes was American support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters through airstrikes and weapons drops.
The government says the pro-Kurdish politicians were attempting to incite civil war and were taking orders from the PKK. They argue that the party is inextricably linked to the PKK. Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said 28 of the defendants are in prison, six are being tried without being jailed and the rest, including PKK commanders, are fugitives.
Selahattin Demirtas, who co-led the HDP and twice ran for president, is accused for speeches and tweets that allegedly incited violence. Demirtas has been in prison since November 2016 on multiple cases and remains behind bars despite European Court of Human Rights orders to release him. Former HDP co-president Figen Yuksekdag has also been in prison since 2016. They appeared in court via video-link and Demirtas said he had trouble following the proceedings.
The HDP, which has seen a widespread crackdown and is facing threats of closure, denies all the charges and says the case “is to pressure and purge the Kurdish and democratic political opposition.”
The government, however, stood by the trial.
“It’s time for the murderers to be held accountable,” said Fahrettin Altun, the communications director of the Turkish president, on Monday.