On 5 August, 21 Turkish journalists were sentenced to jail terms ranging from six years to life in solitary confinement on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.
As the dust settles over the latest wave of imprisonments, a delegation of UK lawyers is speaking out against a criminal justice system mired in political corruption.
According to the delegation, lawyers and journalists alike are being targeted by the Turkish government for writing about Kurdish rights or representing members of the illegal PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
Many of the country’s jailed journalists have been accused of being supporters of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a Kurdish civil society organisation that the Government views as a branch of the PKK.
The UK delegation is travelling to Istanbul's high security Silivri Prison to observe a hearing of 15 fellow lawyers charged with being members of an illegal organisation. All have at some time represented jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and are accused of passing on his orders and forming an illegal leadership committee. Two years in pre-trial detention on what are widely regarded as trumped up charges have devastated morale.
“It’s really important that everyone understands that the justice system [in Turkey] is a farce”, says barrister, Margaret Owen OBE, who has been a regular visitor to the hearings. “When you lock up lawyers with people who have a right to be represented, when you start equating lawyers with the alleged crimes of their clients, you are in serious difficulty.”
Reporting the numerous breaches of fair trial standards has proved futile.
“No review has taken place and I understand that there is no right of appeal from the decision,” continues Owen. “It’s not about the law. There’s no independent judiciary. People don’t have a chance to argue their cases. There is no such thing as a ‘leadership committee’ – what the lawyers are charged with. When you start to imprison people for doing their job, it demonstrates how fascist and police state the country has become.”
The Law Society of England and Wales has written to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemning what have become known as 'the KCK trials' involving some 8,000 political prisoners, including journalists as well as lawyers and other human rights defenders. But their demands that Turkey honours its obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
The problem is that Turkey has a long history of human rights abuses which, despite the heroic efforts of NGOs and other groups, have gone largely unchallenged by the international community, so why should it change now? In the 1990s, disappearances and killings by unknown perpetrators were common in the heavily Kurdish populated regions of the southeast and east, but the state turned a blind eye.
“Mass trials were a method of intimidation first practised against the Kurds”, observes lawyer, Hugo Charlton, who has been monitoring their trials for over a decade. “People didn't care when it was used against the Kurds. It's a slippery slope. Now it's being used against journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, even children.”
In fact, anyone who is brazen enough to criticise the government – whether in news reporting, protesting, or defending a Kurd accused of terrorism offences – risks falling foul of Turkey's broadly defined anti-terror laws.
Journalists often serve time with the most dangerous criminals and may face solitary confinement.
“They want to make journalists fear the courts,” explains Barry White, UK rep of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), who has been supporting his counterparts at the Odatv trial, which concerns the case of the owner of an internet news station, Yalçin Küçük, held in prison since September 2011.
“One gets the impression from talking to people at the trial, and Ercan Ipecki, President of the Journalists Union of Turkey, that they arrest these people on very flimsy evidence and build a case against them. Journalists as watchdogs are prime targets, as are lawyers. Anyone who has an audience with oppositional views is a target."
The indigenous Kurds, making up over 30 per cent of the population, have been waging a liberation movement for almost three decades. Erdogan needs their support to push through his constitutional reforms, which would give him the Presidency, awarding him even greater powers. But he's dragging his heels on the PKK peace process, and using journalists and lawyers as pawns in a negotiating game.
Melanie Gingell, barrister and author of Bar Human Rights Committee Observation: Turkey (Feb 2013), adds: “The defendants characterise themselves as hostages rather than defendants, and I have not seen anything to persuade me that that is not a true reflection of what is going on.”
The peace process seems to be the only solution for the lawyers and journalists held on anti-terror charges, and frustration is building by the day. “The Kurds are threatening to call off the talks,” says Estella Schmid, of the Peace in Kurdistan campaign. “That’s a serious concern. With the war in Syria, and the strength of the Kurds in that region, I just don’t know how long it will go on for.”
Perhaps the most worrying thing of all is that by jailing the lawyers there will be no one left to defend the journalists.
Anna Bragga is a freelance journalist and owner of Conscience Communications