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(Istanbul) – An Istanbul court’s decision on November 1, 2011, to imprison a publisher and a political science professor pending their trial on terrorism charges exposes the huge deficiencies of Turkey’s criminal justice system, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The arrests are part of a crackdown on people engaged in legal political activity with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Ragip Zarakolu, the publisher, and Büşra Ersanlı, the professor, are among 50 people who have been arrested in Istanbul since October 27. Three were released by the prosecutor and 47 brought before Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 14, which remanded 44 to prison and released three pending trial.

“The arrests of Ragip Zarakolu and Büşra Ersanlı represent a new low in the misuse of terrorism laws to crush freedom of expression and association in Turkey,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

All 47 suspects will be charged for alleged links to the Turkish Assembly of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK/TM), a body connected with the leadership of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Under a widening police operation over the past two and a half years, thousands of people associated with the Peace and Democracy Party or related political circles have been charged for alleged links to the KCK/TM or PKK.

Zarakolu is the owner and chief editor of the Belge publishing house, a champion of freedom of expression and human rights, and vocal proponent of Kurdish rights. He has faced prosecution many times for the books he has published and his own writings, none of which have advocated violence. Ersanlı has a chair in political science and international relations at Marmara University, Istanbul, is a member of the Peace and Democracy Party’s Party Assembly, and is part of the commission advising the party on its input for the new constitution.

Most of those arrested were involved in the Peace and Democracy Party’s Politics Academy, which provides courses and training to party activists and officials. The arrests appear to be the continuation of the October 4 police operation in Istanbul in which about 100 people were arrested for alleged KCK links, with 96 in pretrial detention. Among those arrested and imprisoned was Zarakolu’s son, Deniz Zarakolu.

“We are seeing the Turkish police casting the net ever wider in the crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Unless there is clear evidence of people plotting violence or providing logistical support to armed groups, prosecutors and courts should throw these cases out.”

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. The UN special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, has criticized the definition and called for its reform,saying that such crimes should be confined to “acts of deadly or otherwise grave violence against persons or the taking of hostages.”

The European Commission has also repeatedly drawn attention to the misuse of terrorism charges in Turkey and has also said the definition of terrorism in Turkish law is too wide, most recently in its October 2011 progress report on Turkey.

“These prosecutions demonstrate that the problems identified by the UN and European Commission have not gone away,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Turkey urgently needs to amend its vague and widely drawn terrorism laws and stop using them to clamp down on legitimate and peaceful political activity.”

Trials of Peace and Democracy Party members and activists for alleged links to the KCK and PKK are being carried out across the Turkey. After waves of arrests that began in April 2009, the first, and main, trial began at Diyarbakır Heavy Penal Court No. 6 in October 2010. Among its 152 defendants are a large number of public and well-known figures, including serving mayors and a human rights defender. 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,” If convicted, they face penalties of between 15-years and life in prison.

The investigation that led to the Diyarbakir trial was initiated after a court order four years ago authorized police surveillance of suspects and wiretaps. The investigation was the first into alleged links between activists and officials of both the Democratic Society Party and the successor Peace and Democracy Party with the PKK, via the KCK. It led to similar investigations in provinces throughout southeast, eastern and western Turkey.

Human Rights Watch knows of many 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 evidence against the defendants is largely based on wiretaps, surveillance of an office some of the accused frequented, intercepted email correspondence, and testimony from secret witnesses.

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 in the main Diyarbakırtrial also lacks compelling evidence of logistical or material support for an outlawed armed group, nor is there evidence that the accused directly incited violence.

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 produce accurate up-to-date estimates of the numbers currently in pretrial detention and the total number on trial, though it certainly runs to several thousand on trial, Human Rights Watch said. An October Interior Ministry statement put the number in pretrial detention on KCK-related charges at 605, though the figure has fluctuated considerably over the past two years.   

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