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Rights groups say Kobani trial aimed at excluding Kurds from political life

Women's rights activists and a Kudish woman holding up a pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) flag, take part in a Peace Day rally in Istanbul on September 1, 2019. (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

Human Rights Watch and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project have accused Turkey of criminalizing free speech to ensure the arbitrary detention of Kurdish politicians in order to keep them out of politics through the handing down of sentences to 24 Kurdish politicians in a politically charged trial that concluded on Thursday.

An Ankara court sentenced the 24 defendants for their alleged roles in deadly protests in 2014 to prison terms ranging from nine to 42 years, while acquitting 12 other politicians who had been on trial with them.

The politicians were from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including former party co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ.

Calling the trial “manifestly political and unjust,” the rights groups said in a statement on Friday that the court’s ruling confirms that the Turkish authorities instrumentalized the criminal justice system to secure the politicians’ prolonged arbitrary detention on baseless charges and remove them from political life as elected representatives.

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdağ, and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest move in a campaign of persecution that has robbed mainly Kurdish voters of their chosen representatives, undermined the democratic process, and criminalized lawful political speech,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Using bogus criminal proceedings to remove democratically elected Kurdish politicians from political life will do nothing to end the Turkish state’s decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).”

The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and its Western allies.

The Ankara court’s verdict, which the convicted politicians said they would appeal, is the latest development in a long campaign of persecution against the HDP, the rights group said, adding that the “persecution” has been led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which accuse the party of links to the PKK.

The trial, which has lasted nearly three years, centered on the events of October 6-8, 2014, when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) laid siege to the Syrian town of Kobani. Protests erupted across Turkey, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, resulting in 37 deaths.

The Turkish government accused HDP leaders of inciting the violence, while the defendants maintained their calls for solidarity with Kobani were within the bounds of freedom of expression.

“The sentencing of Demirtaş, Yüksekdağ, and several other prominent opposition politicians in Türkiye to lengthy prison terms for their just political advocacy for Kurdish rights is yet another blow to hopes for positive change in the state of human rights, rule of law and democracy in the country,” said Ayşe Bingöl Demir, director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project.

Demir said the latest convictions, along with ongoing arbitrary and politically charged detentions, blatantly violates international human rights standards and disregards European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decisions.

“The international community now faces a critical choice: remain silent and risk complicity in these repressive practices, or call them out and take robust action, including initiating proceedings designated for such serious breaches of international obligations,” she added.

Demirtaş has been behind bars since November 2016 despite four court decisions for his release that were rendered by the ECtHR in 2018, the Ankara 19th High Criminal Court in 2019, the Constitutional Court in 2020 and the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in 2021.

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