The Kobane case: a Turkish show trial

April 23, 2021
Security forces raid the HDP's headquarters on February 15. Photo: Firat News Agency

One hundred and eight leading members of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) — the third largest party in the Turkish parliament — will face a show trial on April 26 that could see them all imprisoned for life.

Six and a half years ago, the world watched in horror as ISIS swept through Syria and seemed about to devour the Kurdish city of Kobanê.

Demonstrations were taking place everywhere calling for support of the besieged defenders. In Turkey, there was added frustration and anger. Firstly, Kurds in Turkey identified with their brothers and sisters in Syria, where the black flags of ISIS could be seen from across the border. Secondly, despite its professed opposition to ISIS, the Turkish government’s only intervention was to prevent volunteers crossing into Syria to help in Kobanê’s defence.

The 108 members who made up the Central Executive Committee of the HDP called, via Twitter, for people to come out into the streets. The demonstrators were attacked by members of the security forces, by far-right Islamists and Turkish nationalists. In the ensuing violence, around fifty people lost their lives, the great majority of them protesters supporting Kobanê.

The HDP has made repeated calls for a full investigation into the violence, but all have been refused. Now, six and a half years on, a political court case is confronting both logic and humanity by accusing the HDP members, in light of those tweets, of the “homicide” of the protesters who died, and of disrupting the unity and integrity of the state.

Selahattin Demirtaș, former co-chair of the HDP, was detained as part of this case, which thus fell under the scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights. The court called for his immediate release in December last year, arguing that the case had no basis, and the detention was purely political. Instead, the Turkish state extended the case to encompass all 108 HDP Executive Committee members. As if that were not enough, they are attempting to use this as the basis for closing down the HDP completely.


This case is part of an intensifying attack on the HDP that seeks to eliminate it from Turkish politics. Over the last six years, around 6000 party members have been imprisoned, including elected MPs and mayors and the former party co-chairs, and many thousands more have been detained by the police. If the ban is approved this will be the sixth pro-Kurdish political party to be banned in Turkey.

Kurdish minority rights have never been recognised by Turkey. A century of forced assimilation has seen massacres and disappearances and the displacement of millions of Kurdish people, as well as the development of a civil war with the PKK, who saw no hope of getting Kurdish rights recognised through parliamentary means.

But the Kurds have refused to give up on the parliamentary route, and in 2014 relations seemed to be moving in a positive direction, with peace talks between the government and imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, which the HDP was helping to facilitate.

At the same time, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government wanted to prevent the emergence of an autonomous administration in the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria. It refused to distinguish between the Syrian Kurdish forces (the People’s Protection Units YPG and YPJ) that were liberating their homeland — first from Baathist oppression and then from ISIS — and the PKK that Turkey classifies as terrorist.

At the end of February 2015, negotiations with Öcalan appeared to be reaching an initial agreement, and the “Dolmabaçe Consensus” was jointly presented by the HDP negotiators and the Deputy Prime Minister.

But Erdoğan was not prepared to accept the growing Kurdish role, either in the form of an autonomous Kurdish enclave on Turkey’s southern flank or in the growing support for the HDP that had been encouraged by the peace process. He quickly pulled back and declared an agreement was “out of the question”.

Harassment and oppression of the HDP grew, and this was ramped up further after the HDP won 13% of the vote in the June, 2015 general election, comfortably crossing the 10% threshold needed for representation and ensuring that the AKP lost its majority. The situation became even worse in the general clampdown on all forms of opposition that followed the failed coup in 2016.

The current intensity of the attack on the HDP appears to be a response to the AKP government’s reliance on its ultra-nationalist partners in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), combined with AKP fears that, without removing the HDP opposition, it will lose the next elections.

When it comes to retaining power, Erdoğan sees the judicial system as a vital ally. The legal cases against the HDP and its members are based on the government’s refusal to distinguish between the legally constituted political party and the PKK, and on its hugely elastic definition of terrorism. The cases have been made possible by the erasure of the separation between government and judiciary.

What happened in 2014?

In the autumn of 2014, a yet-undefeated ISIS was laying siege to the Kurdish city of Kobanê in northern Syria, just across the Turkish border. Although Turkey had acted as the main conduit for international jihadists to enter Syria, the Turkish government was refusing to allow anyone to cross the border to join in the defence of Kobanê.

It claimed to be fighting ISIS and had promised to do what was needed to help Kobanê, but the Turkish troops on the border were doing nothing to stop the attacks on the city, and, instead, were focused on preventing Kurds from going to its rescue.

Up to this point, due to the delicacy of the peace negotiations, the HDP had refrained from criticising the government, but the urgency of the situation demanded action. Calls were going out across the world for Kurds and others to come out into the streets.

On the evening of 6 October, the HDP’s Central Executive Board posted a call on Twitter for people to join the street protests against ISIS and against the AKP government’s embargo. Anger at the government further increased the next day when Erdoğan gave a speech in which he announced “Kobanê is about to fall”. Instead of giving the promised help, he appeared pleased to announce this imminent defeat.

The demonstrations were met by police with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon, and live ammunition. Also on the streets, were counter protesters who had no wish to see the Syrian Kurds defeat ISIS, including members of the far-right Islamist organisation, Hüda Par, and Turkish nationalists.

The first death occurred in Varto district, where police fired on demonstrators and killed a young HDP member. More demonstrators were killed in Batman when they were fired on by people who have not been identified. Tensions, violence and destruction spread. Official figures acknowledge 37 dead, but the actual number of people killed was probably about fifty, most of them pro-Kobanê protesters.

In statements made on October 7 and 9, Demirtaș emphasised the HDP’s opposition to the use of violence, noting that they were ready to work with the government if the government identified the agitators behind the violence.

But nothing was done in response to this; and the Minister of Interior, Efkan Ala, told HDP deputy, Sirri Süreyya Önder, during the protests, that he “could not control unruly elements within the police”.  Since that time, the HDP have made at least ten requests for a full investigation into the violence, but nothing of this kind has been carried out.

The emergence and growth of the Kobanê Case

Nine HDP MPs, including the party’s co-chairs Demirtaș and Figen Yüksekdağ, were arrested on November 4, 2016, and put in pre-trial detention.

The HDP’s tweets from October 6, 2014, were quoted as evidence of public incitement to commit an offence, and the fact that the PKK made a similar call was used to imply they were one and the same organisation.

Turkey’s political cases can get very complicated, with people subject to a large number of different but similar charges, and also lesser charges that can keep them in the prison system.

Last autumn, many more HDP members were accused in connection with the Kobanê protests from 2014, and the case has now been extended to include all 108 people who were present at the HDP Central Executive Board meeting that agreed the tweets.

The Ankara 22nd Heavy Penal Court accepted an indictment on January 7 that had been filed on December 30, calling for all 108 defendants to be given life sentences without parole. Charges include 37 cases of homicide, and disrupting the unity and territorial integrity of the state.

This case, which will hold its first hearing on April 26, is also being quoted as justification for closing down the HDP. The Chief Public Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation submitted an indictment to the Constitutional Court on March 17, calling for the closure of the party, and for 687 HDP members to be banned from political activity for five years. This was a response to repeated and virulent demands by MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli.

The indictment was thrown together so shoddily — a reflection of its political rather than legal origins — that it even included people who are no longer alive. Currently it has been sent back for redrafting, with the criticism that, as it stands, it fails to make a case for a causal link between the HDP’s actions and what they are being accused of. If the Kobanê case finds against the HDP, it will be used as evidence of that link.

European Court of Human Rights ruling

Demirtaș has appealed his detention to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the case was heard by the Grand Chamber on December 22. The judgement can be viewed online and provides a clear rundown of events.

A vital consideration for the court was whether, at the time of his pre-trial detention, there were “facts or information that could satisfy an objective observer that he had committed the alleged offences”.

In concluding that there were not — and that Demirtaș should be immediately released — the judges made clear that the tweets “cannot be construed as a call for violence”, and that “The acts of violence that took place between 6 and 8 October 2014, regrettable though they were, cannot be seen as a direct consequence of the tweets in question.” (Paragraph 327)

The court also found that other evidence against Demirtaș — from political speeches and participation in “lawful meetings” — similarly provided no clear link with the offences for which he was detained. They concluded: “Not only were the charges against the applicant based essentially on facts that could not be reasonably considered criminal conduct under domestic law, they related mainly to the exercise by him of his Convention rights.” (Paragraph 339)

The court further concluded that the case was not only baseless, but politically motivated: “Court finds that it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that the applicant’s detention, especially during two crucial campaigns relating to the referendum and the presidential election, pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.” (Paragraph 437)

Turkey’s expansion of the Kobanê case, just eight days after this ruling, is another example of their disregard for the international laws they have signed up to. The European Court’s conclusions can and should be extrapolated to the whole Kobanê case.

And what of Kobanê?

Kobanê has been rebuilt and is enjoying its freedom as part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. But, in case anyone was in any doubt about Erdoğan’s attitudes towards Kurdish freedom and far-right Islamism, he has made no secret of Turkey’s desire to invade and occupy the city, using the jihadist mercenaries that have already brought a regime of brutality to the Turkish-occupied areas in Afrîn, SerêKaniyê‎ and GirêSpî.

The only thing that holds them back is the ceasefire overseen by Russia, which will only act as a deterrent so long as it serves Russia’s interests. Life for the residents who still remain in the Turkish-occupied lands has been compared to that under ISIS — which is unsurprising, as the militias that control them include many former ISIS fighters.

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