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Opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now become a crime. As his authoritarian grip on the country tightens, the long-awaited trials of two of the country’s opposition leaders begin, with both facing lengthy prison sentences.
People’s Democratic Party (HDP) co-presidents Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas have been held in Turkish prisons for more than a year. Both face trumped-up charges of terrorism for speeches that they have made both inside and outside of parliament including attending rallies and marches for freedom and democracy for the Kurdish people.
The HDP has come under “a very heavy state terror,” according to a party official in Ankara. Nine of its MPs are currently in prison along with 85 mayors and an estimated 10,000 activists.
To put this into context I usually say, when speaking at meetings on the political situation in Turkey, that this is the equivalent to Theresa May holding Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Belmarsh prison without trial and arresting the whole of Momentum.
Yet while this has been taking place in Turkey — a key Nato ally — there has been an uncomfortable silence across Europe and in Britain. Last month, to mark the first anniversary of the arrests, the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign launched a “Free the HDP” campaign in Parliament.
In a historic development, the formation of the HDP brought together the popular and socialist movement in Turkey with the Kurdish liberation movement, the feminist movement, the ecological movement and the youth and working-class organisations.
It describes itself as an anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal party of the left standing for workers’ rights in a country where trade unions are oppressed and strikes are banned and calls for unity of all those living in Turkey whether Kurdish or Alevi.
The party programme is radical and transformative and should be a beacon for all progressives across the world. However, while liberals embraced the likes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the HDP — and its success — was largely ignored.
In June 2015 the party stood for the first time in a national election, breaking the arbitrary 10 per cent barrier and winning seats in Turkey’s Grand Assembly. This was a major defeat for the ruling AKP ending its ruling majority.
It moved against the HDP and the architects of that defeat are now in Turkish prisons with opposition now becoming a crime.
The launch of the Free the HDP campaign aimed to break the silence and increase awareness among British MPs of the plight of their Turkish counterparts, establishing a twinning programme between the two groups of politicians. This has started to gain some ground with Labour’s Chris Williamson leading the way by twinning with the HDP MP for Van, Berdan Ozturk, who came to Britain at great risk to his personal liberty.
However, just how far there is to go was underlined by the official government response to a written question regarding the imprisonment of the jailed HDP MPs and activists.
In its reply Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan referred to Turkey as a “modern democracy” and said he hoped that trials in the country would follow the rule of law and Turkey’s response to the failed coup of July 2016 would be proportionate.
These comments were branded a “disgrace” by those campaigning for democracy in the country. Since the failed coup attempt more than 100,000 public-sector workers have been sacked, thousands of academics have been purged from their posts for signing a peace petition, more journalists than anywhere else in the world are in prison and opposition politicians have been jailed.
HDP officials told me that there is no democracy in Turkey which, thanks to the state of emergency that has been in place for more than a year, sees one person rule. Many refer to Erdogan’s rule as a fascist dictatorship as he crushes all opposition.
The largely Kurdish south-east has suffered with military curfews. Whole cities including Cizre and Nusaybin have been razed to the ground and one million people are displaced. War crimes are being committed but the world remains silent.
The UN is accused of complicity as, while it recognises the atrocities being committed in this part of the world, it falls short of calling them war crimes as if it did it would have to take action.
Disgracefully on the eve of the trial of Figen Yuksekdag — Turkey’s most prominent female politician — the EU released a statement from the city of Mersin praising the country for its role in promoting women’s rights.
Celebrating Women’s Rights Day, Christian Berger said they were remembering Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with pride. Meanwhile trade unions on the same city released a statement calling for an end to the state of emergency and a return to democracy
If Erdogan was Putin or Assad, Turkey would almost certainly have faced sanctions and if there were natural resources probably bombing, invasion and an attempt at regime change. Instead Turkey is sold weapons and perversely the British government believes the best way to influence Ankara is to increase trade and arms sales.
All this does is strengthen the arm of Erdogan and makes the British government complicit in the oppression and suffering of the Turkish people. As with so many other human rights abusers, Britain has placed its strategic aims above the human rights of others.
It is unlikely that Demirtas will appear in court today. As I arrived in Turkey the case had already been moved from the central Ankara public court to Sincan prison, around 18 miles outside the city.
The authorities want the trial to be conducted away from public view. The Morning Star is again the only British newspaper present at the trials. Last time, along with the rest of the international delegation I was branded a terrorist sympathiser and blocked from entering the court.
The Ministry of Justice is reported to have consistently asked that he is not brought to court and there were plans for Demirtas to appear via video-link, a request he rejects.
Judges are fearful of coming up against the skilled orator and HDP officials believe that the case has not come to court because the charges are so weak that any hearing would expose to the world that Demirtas is not a criminal and that he should be released from prison.
Prosecutors are seeking a 142-year sentence for Demirtas and the criticisms he has made of the ruling AKP are branded a crime and he has been labelled a “terrorist,” “traitor” and “enemy.”
The charges against him, which were not known until recently, include producing press releases, giving speeches at conferences, panels and similar legal political activities.
The case against Demirtas is what is known as “a bagged indictment.” It was compiled by merging 31 separate dossiers and that is based on speeches Mr Demirtas gave in different places on different dates.
The prosecutors, who had prepared nine of the dossiers, were arrested on charges of being members of the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation (FETO) and aiding the coup attempt on July 15 2016. The same prosecution demands 142 years’ imprisonment for Demirtas based on the dubious indictment.
The alleged “criminal actions” in the majority of the dossiers date back to 2011, 2012 and 2013. But the preparation dates of the dossiers are in the first four months of 2016, when the president and the prime minister said “immunities must be lifted.” Even this reveals that the dossiers are prepared for political reasons, not legal ones.
Three hundred out of the 501 pages of the indictment include press releases and the speeches at conferences. The criticism Demirtas raised against the ruling party in his speeches within his political and public activities is considered to be a crime.
There has been no parliamentary decision that orders the stripping of Demirtas’s parliamentary immunity for “establishing and managing a terrorist organisation.”
And despite the fact that there were no charges of “establishing and managing a terrorist organisation” in the dossiers prepared against him, the indictment involved this charge.
The HDP claims that the court does not have jurisdiction to judge Demirtas based on these charges.
Hundreds in Britain have signed a letter of solidarity with Yuksekdag and Demirtas demanding their immediate and unconditional release.
And EDM 602, laid in Parliament by Labour’s Grahame Morris, condemns the Turkish government for its actions and demands an end to the state of emergency.
The HDP says there can be no democracy without an opposition and have called for international solidarity and a stand with those who fight for democracy and justice.
Turkey has a long and proud tradition of struggle against oppression. We stand with them and demand the release of all political prisoners in Turkey and an end to the state of emergency.
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