On 10 April 2013, I joined an international delegation of observers to attend a hearing against Turkish public sector union KESK (an ITUC affiliate) in Ankara.
In what was actually one of several court cases against KESK, 22 defendants had to appear before the judge to determine whether they were to stay in pre-trial detention – as they had for the previous ten months.
The hearing was not about the merits of the case, which concerns 72 defendants, all KESK members, who are being charged under Turkey’s anti-terrorism legislation.
On 25 June 2012, a total of 50 KESK members and leaders, including KESK President Lami Özgen, were detained.
After three days, 28 of them were released but the other 22 were arrested.
The official indictment against the 72 KESK members, including the 22 still in detention, was issued on 12 February.
On 10 April, the judge released the 22 from prison but ruled that all 72 would continue to face charges and would have to appear in court on 8 July, 2013.
Before entering the court room on 10 April, I joined around 2,000 demonstrators in front of the courthouse.
With members of the Turkish press present, our KESK colleagues addressed the crowd, followed by members of the international delegation who offered their support.
Inside, the courtroom was packed. Family members of the defendants reacted emotionally to seeing their relatives in the dock, flanked by five policemen and 15 jandarma (army personnel), one of whom carried a huge rifle.
Although I am no legal expert, a number of issues struck me as odd:
- Three judges sat up front with the prosecutor. During the three breaks that were given, they left together, suggesting that they were sitting (and thus talking) together in between sessions.
- The defence lawyers were seated on both sides of the dock where they were unable to speak to their clients. While there were around 40 of them present, only three had taken the floor by the end of the day.
- The court clerk only withheld the judge’s (very short and sort of "standard") summaries for the verbatim, not the defendants’ pleas.
- A Word document was being projected on the wall containing what was referred to as "identity information" such as the full name, address, date and place of birth, full name of parents, salary, property declaration and even the level of literacy of each defendant. More than half a day was spent on this alone as defendant after defendant had to rise, and go over this data (which contained a remarkable amount of even basic inaccuracies) with the judge.
- Although Lami Özgen was not among those detained, he did sit with the defendants for the whole day and was the first to take the floor. He stated what would be repeated time and again throughout the day – that all the defendants were democrats who support peace between Turks and Kurds, and who simply engaged in legitimate trade union action which could in no way be labelled as "terrorist activity". The evidence which was collected was haphazard – pictures of people entering union buildings, recordings of private phone calls of union members inviting friends over for dinner and attendance lists of legal union meetings. Despite the fact that the KESK offices were also raided, no further evidence provided to demonstrate any criminal activities had taken place. It was also striking that while Özgen was being charged on the basis of anti-terrorism legislation, at the same time, he had also been invited to be on a panel of "wise men" created to mediate between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish rebels.
- One by one, all defendants made similar pleas, some demanding that the charges against them be dropped and that they be released, others emphasising the fact that they had been with their union long before there even was a KCK (the "urban division" of the PKK, of which KESK is alleged to be "part of the organogram", according to the indictment), or the fact that they themselves were not Kurdish but that they simply defended equal rights for everyone. None of this was reflected in the verbatim; the clerk only took down the judge’s short summaries, which were limited to standard formulas such as "I am aware of my rights" and "I reject the accusations." Every summary was more or less identical.
- The law regarding the use of the Kurdish language in court had just been changed on 20 December. At the beginning of the hearing, some defendants had requested to be heard in Kurdish. At that point, I was told that the judge was refusing this. However, the final four defendants did make their statements in Kurdish. Translations were read out by two interpreters, and these statements were reflected in much more detail in the verbatim than the ones made in Turkish.
- One lawyer had been given the floor before the defendants’ pleas. Afterwards, he was allowed to speak again. He complained about not being able to hear the prosecutor before bringing his clients’ defence, and about the fact that the defence lawyers weren’t able to speak to their clients. The judge replied, laconically, that he was going to allow for a five minute break, during which they could talk.
- After all the proceedings, the prosecutor finally took to the floor for the very first time. He stated, very briefly, that, having heard the defence pleas, he ruled that the charges were not being dropped, but that every defendant would be released from pre-trial detention.
- Only after this very first intervention, two other defence lawyers were allowed to speak. They argued that there hadn’t been a decent investigation, and that the indictment was all too similar to the report of the prosecutor. They denounced the procedure to collect evidence as unfair, and the indictment as lax and biased, and said they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
- Finally, the judge adjourned the hearing, saying he would announce his verdict immediately afterwards. Everyone was then summoned to leave the courtroom. Less than an hour later, we could tell from the cheers of the crowd outside the courthouse, that the defendants had been released.
I already mentioned that I’m no legal expert, let alone one familiar with the Turkish legal system, but I do believe that this report contains enough material to speak of major anomalies.
I briefly spoke to a British lawyer who was in attendance as an observer for Euromed, and he referred to Article 6 on the right to a fair trial of the European Convention of Human Rights.
He was particularly concerned by the long pre-trial detention periods and the fact that the three judges were sitting together with the prosecutor, while the defence lawyers could not talk to their clients.
Apart from the legal aspects, it is important for the international union movement to stand by its colleagues in Turkey, especially on the issue of being branded a terrorist organisation.
In a broader context, Turkish law is being misused to silence other civil society groups, such as journalists. It is therefore important to stress that Turkey abuses its legal system to muzzle any opposition in general, and the unions in particular.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to exert pressure on the authorities as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is becoming ever more arrogant in his dealings with the EU, stating openly that because economic growth is higher in Turkey than in the EU, it is Europe that needs Turkey, and not the other way around.
Several colleagues told me that they believed, however, that the KESK case could benefit from the peace talks which are being initiated between the authorities and Kurdish rebel factions.
Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen.