Last week, the Kobanî trial resumed 562 days and numerous sessions after the first hearing on April 26, 2021. The defendants, all of whom are current and former members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), face 29 criminal charges, ranging from “attempted murder” to “disseminating terrorist propaganda.”
Outside Türkiye, the trial has been largely condemned, with European politicians calling for solidarity with the HDP, considering the case highly politically motivated and “meddling with democracy.”
The 8th session of the 18th hearing in Ankara on November 4 saw Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned former co-chair of the HDP, making his defense for the first time in Kurdish, and politicians Bircan Yorulmaz and Mesut Bağcık being released on the condition of judicial control.
Demirtaş said the trial is a political endeavor that tries to isolate and criminalize the HDP, and one of the aims of the case is for the government to win the upcoming 2023 elections.
The Kobanî trial is a legal procedure that unfolded after the “Kobanî protests” in October 2014. The HDP had called for demonstrations against a possible massacre in Kobanî, when ISIS laid siege to the Kurdish town in northern Syria. Thousands of people had gone out protesting in Kurdish-majority provinces, as well as in Ankara and İstanbul.
When the demonstrations turned violent, 46 people were killed, 682 were wounded, and 323 were arrested, according to the Human Right Association (İHD).
In January 2015, ISIS was eventually driven out of Kobanî by the US-backed Kurdish fighters regarded by Türkiye as terrorists connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has been in armed conflict with the state of Türkiye since 1984.
The current criminal case was opened seven years after the incident. Now, 108 HDP members are on trial, with 21 remanded in custody because of their alleged involvement in the protests. People indicted include Figen Yüksekdağ, who co-chaired the party with Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP) Sebahat Tuncel, HDP Honorary President Ertuğrul Kürkçü and other senior HDP members.
Thirty-eight accused are facing life sentences, and the prosecution seeks a total of 19,680 years in jail. According to the 3,530-page indictment, all 108 suspects are charged with the same crimes. The prosecution seeks the punishment of all suspects on the charges, such as: “disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state,” “killing 37 times,” “attempted killing 31 times,” “burning the flag” and “violating the Law on Protecting Atatürk.”
The Kobanî case has raised domestic and international controversy and has been called a “revenge trial” by HDP Co-Chair Mithat Sancar in the first hearing. Throughout the trial, the defense has instigated that there are manipulations of secret witness statements, that the Kurdish language and culture are under attack, that the trial is a plot and political revenge against the HDP, and that the judges are President Erdoğan, MHP Chair Bahçeli and Minister of Interior Soylu.
Besides the Kobanî case, the HDP has been under attack recently. The Constitutional Court in June 2021 accepted an indictment seeking the closure of the HDP and a political ban for around 500 of its members, for its alleged connections to the PKK. Furthermore, in the past two years, multiple HDP mayors were removed from office, detained, and replaced with trustees.
The Kobanî trial is inherently linked with the “Kurdish issue” in Türkiye and shows that although HDP became the country’s second-largest opposition party and, within its ten-year lifespan, managed to become a somewhat larger moderate actor within the political domain of Türkiye, it still can’t shed its alleged anti-systemic origins and problems its predecessors faced.
HDP vote and the elections
The progressive left-wing party was founded in 2012 and quickly gained popularity. With Demirtaş leading the HDP, he became third in the 2014 presidential elections. The party established a breakthrough with 13.1 percent of the votes in the June 20115 elections, passing the 10 percent threshold. In the November 2015 snap elections, the party garnered 10.7 percent of the votes. Demirtaş ran again for president in 2018, despite being in prison.
Similarly to the AKP’s success in reforming itself into a party gaining votes over a broader spectrum, HDP’s success is attributed to extending itself from not solely being an ethnic/regionalist ‘party of Kurds’ but into a democratic ‘party of Türkiye’. This change meant the HDP would represent all colors and generations, all disadvantaged and oppressed identities of Türkiye’s Republican history, such as women and the youth.
This view was also brought up in the defense by former HDP Mardin Deputy Gülser Yıldırım on the 6th session of the 18th hearing period of the Kobanî trial: “If HDP policies are kept alive in this country, the Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian or Circassian peoples living in the country will live in peace. In this philosophy, there is no hostility to peoples and beliefs, languages , and cultures, and there is no injustice. There is no hostility towards women and youth. HDP philosophy sees every person as himself. He sees their rights as his own.”
In the upcoming 2023 elections, as polls indicate a close race between rival blocs, the HDP vote is considered decisive. Surveys suggest that the HDP currently holds around 10 percent of the vote.
Demirtaş, during the trial on November 4, also addressed these concerns in his defense: “The main purpose of this political activity, which is carried out under the name of a lawsuit, is to isolate the HDP politically by making it seem criminal.
“In this way, it ensures that the AKP-MHP government wins the election again. However, this lawsuit is not their only tactic to achieve this illegitimate goal. The HDP closure case is another political activity carried out for the same purpose.”
Precisely six years earlier on November 4, 2016, Demirtaş was detained based on the October 6-8 Kobanî reports for “inciting the people to hatred and enmity”. After parliamentary immunity was lifted with a constitutional amendment on May 20, 2016. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on November 20, 2018, ordered the termination of the pre-trial detention of Demirtaş. However, the politician is still held in a Type-F prison in Edirne.
Besides the ECtHR denouncing Demirtaş detention, it also rejects one of the main pillars of the Kobanî case, namely HDP’s tweet on October 6, 2014. However, the ECtHR stated in its Demirtaş decision that the HDP’s tweet in question is not a call for violence. “The decision of the ECtHR does not bind us, ” responded President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the ECtHR demand to immediately release Demirtaş.
Besides the upcoming electoral potential of HDP, the modern Republic of Türkiye has seen both pro-Islamist right and Kurdish left parties frequently being banned. Since the post-coup 1982 Constitution, around 20 political parties have been closed.
Many of the previous (radical) Kurdish left parties have been accused of promoting territorial separation based on ethnic and sectarian lines, undermining Türkiye’s territorial integrity and national unity, and were linked with the illegal PKK. Therefore, The Kurdish left-wing parties during the early 1990s often had to deal with similar legal charges.
Secularism and Turkish nationalism are two of the foundational pillars of modern Türkiye. Therefore, Islamic and Kurdish revivalism has been regarded as existential threats to the state. Where Islamic revivalism was considered a danger to the state’s secularism, the Kurdish left was regarded as a threat to Turkish nationalism.
Therefore, both the AKP, with its Islamist revivalist origins, and the HDP, coming from a background of ethnic/regionalist Kurdish identity politics, are perceived in Türkiye’s traditional political sense as “anti-systemic.” On the other hand, the CHP and MHP are considered to represent more the “classic status quo.”
For example, “The threat of the AKP for the state” was visible in the 2008 case that aimed to close the ruling AKP and ban its 71 leading members from politics for five years. The charges were based on the party violating Türkiye’s principle of separation of religion and state. However, the ruling party did not endure the same fate as some of its precursors, with only one vote difference. The 11 judges voted by six to five for closure, whereas at least seven votes were necessary for dissolving the party.
The decision was welcomed as a “victory for democracy” by AKP leaders and the EU, which condemned the case as anti-democratic, stating that the party’s potential closure could damage Türkiye’s membership bid.
“Survival of the state”
Similarly, Kurdish political parties have been closed or faced closure throughout the history of Türkiye. The latest attempt was in 2021, when the Constitutional Court of Türkiye accepted an indictment to outlaw the HDP, as it would be “acting as an arm of the PKK.”
Moreover, the indictment requested a political ban for 451 HDP executives. Around that time, 4.000 members of HDP were already in prison, including parliamentarians, according to a 2021 European Commission report. This attracted similar anti-democratic concerns from the EU.
Although the HDP denies any links with PKK, President Erdoğan, among others, accuses the party of being the political wing of the militant terrorist organization.
According to Levent Köker, a professor of public law, in both the Kobanî and HDP cases the “survival of the state” discourse is very present. He asserts that the main oppositional block is not in a different position than the current political power on the case, or at least that this not visible. The leader of Türkiye’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, however, stated last year that” the Kurdish question in Türkiye could be resolved with the pro-Kurdish HDP.”
On October 31, 2022, in the 3rd session of the 18th hearing of the Kobanî trail. Politician Aynur Aşan also brought up the “survival of the state” in her defense, which she held in Kurdish.
“My mother tongue has become a disadvantage for me here. Even our efforts to demand the right to education in the mother tongue are reflected as the subject of disintegrating the state, and we are prosecuted for this ‘crime’. I made my defense in Kurdish. Did the state fall apart, did the state have any security problems? However, this is reflected as my attempt to break up the state.”
Multiple politicians on trial have used Kurdish in their defense, creating issues from time to time, as Kurdish translators were not brought in or there were problems with the translation. One person during the trial stated that “you force your client to give their defense in Turkish.”
Release of two defendants
On November 4, on the 8th session of the 18th hearing of the Kobanî Case at the Sincan Prison Campus Trial Hall, the court board decided to release Bircan Yorulmaz and Mesut Bağcık on condition of judicial control, considering that their defense and detention were sufficient.
Bircan Yorulmaz, politician and writer for Bianet, emphasized the unlawfulness of the case and left in ‘bittersweet joy’. “I was released on the grounds that my interrogation was completed a year and a half ago. This situation itself is proof that I spent a year and a half in prison for nothing.”
The Kobanî case will continue with the 19th hearing period at the Sincan Prison Campus between November 21 and December 2.
More articles on the topic:
- Further mass detentions of HDP members within the scope of the Kobani investigation
- Closing Down Democracy – The Prosecution of the HDP
- Lawyers of the Kobani Case: Legal defence is under grave threat
- The Kobani Case: Violating the right to a fair trial
- Kobanî trial: ‘Lay the ground for indictment of HDP closure case’
- Kobani Trial: “This Court is all About Defending ISIS”
- Kobanî trial: #SolidarityWithHDP & #DefendKobani