(London, April 18, 2011) - The prosecution of hundreds of officials, activists, and elected mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) highlights the problems associated with Turkey's overbroad antiterrorism laws, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial of the 152 defendants in Diyarbakir Heavy Penal Court for alleged links to the armed outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is set to resume on April 19, 2011.
The 152 defendants have been in prison for periods of up to two years, and include six democratically elected mayors from BDP, which is legal and has members in parliament. Hundreds more officials from the party and its predecessor, the Democratic Society Party (DTP), are in prison as part of other related trials. The prosecutions demonstrate that the antiterrorism laws are incompatible with human rights guarantees, Human Rights Watch said.
"The use of terrorism laws to prosecute sitting mayors and other BDP officials is both troubling and all too familiar," said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Without compelling evidence of violent activities, it's hard to see the prosecution's effort to link this legal party with an illegal organization as anything but a clampdown on legitimate political activity."
The defendants are accused of membership of the Union of Kurdistan Communities/Turkey Assembly (KCK/TM), an alleged front organization for the PKK. Of the 152 people on trial, 104 have been held in prolonged detention. Fifty-three arrested in April 2009 have been in prison for two years, while others were imprisoned after three subsequent waves of arrests in 2009. The six elected mayors from cities in southeast Turkey and Muharrem Erbey, the head of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association and vice president of the organization nationally, have been in prison since their arrest in December 2009.
Human Rights Watch has particular concerns about the detention of the six mayors: Nejdet Atalay of Batman; Zülküf Karatekin, of Diyarbakır Kayapınar municipality; Aydın Budak of Cizre; Ethem Şahin of Suruç municipality; Leyla Güven of Viranşehir Munipality; and Ferhan Türk of Kızıltepe municipality. Four other mayors are also on trial, but not in detention. They are Osman Baydemir of Greater Diyarbakir Municality, Abdullah Demirtaş of Sur Municipality, Yüksel Baran of Bağlar Municipality, and Selim Sadak of Siirt.
The trial has barely progressed during 20 hearings since October 2010. It has been delayed in part because of the insistence by many of the defendants on addressing the court in their mother-tongue, Kurdish. The court has ordered them to speak Turkish, though other courts in Diyarbakır have permitted defendants to give evidence in Kurdish.
The trial raises a series of fair trial concerns common to cases involving terrorism charges, including prolonged pre-trial detention and limitations on access by defendants and their lawyers to the evidence against them, Human Rights Watch said. These cases are tried in special heavy penal courts, formerly known as State Security Courts until their abolition in 2004, whose remit is terrorism offenses and organized crime.
There are also concerns about the way in which the criminal investigation was conducted, Human Rights Watch said. Judges repeatedly granted the police permission to keep hundreds of suspects under surveillance and to intercept their telephone calls and communications without properly assessing and justifying "reasonable grounds for suspicion" in individual cases.
Human Rights Watch documented the arbitrary use of terrorism laws to restrict freedom of expression and assembly and to punish demonstrators as though they were armed militants in a November 2010 report,"Protesting as a Terrorist Offense: The Arbitrary Use of Terrorism Laws to Prosecute and Incarcerate Demonstrators in Turkey." Many of the same concerns apply in the case of the KCK trials in relation to the restriction on the right to freedom of association.
Turkey's Anti-Terrorism Law contains a vague and overbroad definition of terrorism, Human Rights Watch said. Furthermore, court interpretations of the law make its misuse more likely. After a visit to Turkey in 2006, as the law was being revised, Martin Scheinin, the UN special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, expressed concern about the definition and recommended that "the definition of terrorist crimes should be brought in line with international norms and standards." He said that such crimes should be confined to "acts of deadly or otherwise grave violence against persons or the taking of hostages."
"The KCK case underscores that the problems the UN identified with Turkey's terrorism law have not gone away," Ward said. "Turkey urgently needs to amend its vague and widely drawn terrorism laws and stop using them to try to silence and marginalize political activists for acts that by no stretch of the imagination can be called terrorism."
The Diyarbakır trial followed a criminal investigation initiated after police surveillance of suspects and wiretaps authorized by court order up to four years ago. It was the first such investigation into alleged links between activists and officials of both the Democratic Society Party and the successor Peace and Democracy Party with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), via the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK). It led to similar investigations in provinces throughout southeast, eastern and western Turkey.
Human Rights Watch knows of 14 other related trials in the courts of Diyarbakir, Adana, Van, Erzurum and Izmir, for alleged offenses in the many provinces over which those courts have jurisdiction. In each case, the indictments allege that the defendants belong to the KCK's Turkey Assembly, and that this assembly operates in cities throughout Turkey under the control of the PKK.
The main trial against the 152 defendants at Diyarbakir Heavy Penal Court No. 6 is the most prominent and has the largest number of publicly known defendants. In a 7,578-page indictment, they are charged with crimes such as "aiming to destroy the unity and integrity of the state" (separatism), being a "member or leading member of the PKK", and "aiding and abetting the PKK", for which they face penalties of between 15-years and life in prison.
The evidence against the defendants is largely made up of wiretaps, surveillance of an office some of the accused frequented, interception of email correspondence, and testimony from four secret witnesses. One of the defendants is alleged to be a prominent figure in the PKK in Europe, and to have communicated with and directed the activities of some of the other defendants in Turkey. The indictment includes allegations that some defendants organized demonstrations under the orders of the PKK and that the demonstrations reached violent proportions and entailed street battles between some young demonstrators and police.
However, there is scant evidence to suggest the defendants engaged in any acts that could be defined as terrorism as it is understood in international law: namely, violent activities such as bombings and hostage-taking targeting civilians, or the plotting of such activities. The indictment also lacks compelling evidence of logistical or material support for an outlawed armed group; nor is there evidence that the accused directly incited violence.
One of the police superintendants working on the KCK case at the Anti-Terror Branch of the Diyarbakir Security Directorate was reported by the newspaper Zaman to have said at a Police Academy conference on terrorism in December 2010, that 900 people had been imprisoned pending trial for their alleged links with the KCK and PKK, and that 2,500 had been detained. The widespread and dispersed nature of the ongoing investigations and arrests, and a lack of available official statistics on the investigations and trials, make it impossible to corroborate these figures or to produce accurate up-to-date estimates of the numbers currently in pretrial detention and the total number on trial.