Human Rights Watch today drew a sharp distinction between the trial of Abdullah Ocalan and that of the tens of thousands of other people tried by state security courts in Turkey.
With a verdict expected today in the trial of Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Human Rights Watch noted that the considerable latitude given for the defendant to speak in his own defense was not typical of the Turkish state security courts, where defendants' rights are restricted—particularly in the initial stages of proceedings.
"There was an element of political theater in this trial," said Jonathan Sugden, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The court devoted a lot of time to presenting the PKK as a creation of Turkey's foreign enemies. But it neglected to uncover the chain of command between Ocalan and the crimes committed by PKK members."
The Turkish government made considerable efforts to convince the world that this would be a fair trial - even enacting a change to the constitution last week to replace the court's military judge with a civilian one. Human Rights Watch welcomed the removal of the military judge from State Security Court benches, but restated its view expressed at the outset of the trial that there were other serious problems with the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.
Sugden said that almost every day, in Istanbul, Ankara or Diyarbakir State Security Court, defendants report to the bench that they were subjected to ill-treatment or torture in police custody. In many cases, their allegations are supported by medical evidence.
Human Rights Watch was satisfied that Abdullah Ocalan was not subjected to torture in police custody, but the irregularities which occurred in the first days of custody prejudiced the defendant's right of defense and tainted subsequent proceedings. "It was in the first days after arrest that things started to go wrong," said Sugden.
When Ocalan was brought to Turkey after his abduction from Kenya in February, he was held in incommunicado police detention for nine days - far in excess of international standards, and even of the limits imposed by Turkish domestic law. Sugden therefore disagreed with observers from the Council of Europe, who said on June 21 that "the trial . . . has been correct and in accordance with the applicable Turkish law."
Meanwhile, Ocalan has been permitted only limited access to legal counsel. During meetings with his lawyers, which were restricted in frequency and duration, one or more security force members was present and within hearing. During the initial stage of the investigation, lawyers were not permitted to bring notes to interviews with their client.
Sugden noted also that once the process reached the courts, there were other reminders of common State Security Court practice: the judges refused to hear any of the witnesses proposed by the defense, and barred at least one piece of their evidence from being read to the court on the grounds that it was "propaganda".
"The shortcomings in Ocalan's trial would have been grave in any legal proceedings," said Sugden. "But they were quite unacceptable when a human being is on trial for his life."
Ocalan is being tried under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, which carries a mandatory death sentence. Sugden urged the Council of Europe to defend its goal of making Europe a death-penalty-free zone.
Turkey has never executed a prisoner sentenced by a State Security Court, and has sustained a de facto moratorium on executions for 15 years. Human Rights Watch urged Turkish politicians to hold to their principled position on the death penalty. There are currently forty-two people on death row who have exhausted all legal avenues.
Human Rights Watch noted that Ocalan was not directly charged with any of the hundreds of PKK killings of unarmed Kurdish villagers, teachers or prisoners, but rather with a 'crime against the state.' "Leaders should be held to account, however, when their subordinates kill civilians or prisoners—clear violations of international humanitarian law," said Sugden. "Milosevic and Pinochet may stand trial for such crimes -- and Ocalan should, too."