Today was historic in one way.  For shortly after the Kurdish lawyers’ trial opened, in the packed small courtroom in Silivri, the judge, the same one we have seen presiding at all the previous hearings, declared “those defendants and their lawyers who feel more comfortable speaking in their Kurdish mother tongue may do so. The court has interpreters available.”

We of the international lawyers’ delegations wanted to shout “bravo”, or clap loudly for indeed the actual implementation by the judge of this very new law which many of us feared would be subjected to a very narrow interpretation by the judge is to be celebrated. It does represent a massive step forward in acknowledging Kurdish people’s rights to their culture, their mother tongue, their identity.

But it was to be only a step, and as the lawyer defendants, one by one, argued their innocence, raged at or ridiculed the fantasies and misrepresentations in the indictments; questioned the very legality of the whole process of their arrests, detentions and treatment; condemned the policies of the government that punishes lawyers for simply doing their job; highlighted the breaches of the basic human rights standards for fair trials; the unlawful invasion of the confidentiality that should exist between a lawyer and his client it became clear that, in spite of this significant concession there would be no great victory by the end of the day.

Three bailed women lawyer defendants were among the first to plead their cases.  A fourth, when called to address the judge, declared she would not make her submissions until all her imprisoned colleagues were released on bail.

The one journalist prisoner in this trial picked lie after lie, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his indictment, his lengthy presentation covering the detailed forensics of a mass of emails, that he showed could not possibly have come from him or to him. One after another, defendants, speaking in Kurdish, but with a Turkish interpreter at their side, upbraided the judge and the court system for its lack of legality. Every defendant referred to the process as purely political and grossly unjust.

“This is a political trial. You are criminalising lawyers for simply doing their job. The indictments have no basis on facts. By subjecting so many lawyers to long spells in pre-trial detention, you are also depriving ordinary people of access to justice.”

The indictments of the 46 lawyers, of whom some 20 had been bailed before this fourth hearing, have in common the allegation that they, as lawyers for the Kurdish leader imprisoned on Imrali island since 1999, are then “couriers” for Ocalan’s “Leadership Committee”. This, the Prosecutor insists, is an illegal terrorist organisation that the lawyers are members of, and are transmitting terrorism-related messages, on behalf of Ocalan, to the PKK.  Again and again, throughout the day these allegations were rebutted.  The lawyers for Ocalan knew nothing of such an organisation.  Nor was there any hard evidence that such an association actually existed.

There were, however, even amid the tensions and anger, moments of sheer comedy, when everyone, judge, defendants, lawyers, relatives and the international delegations, even the Jandarma police) burst out laughing. At one point a defendant remarked how, in childhood, he had had such respect for the legal profession and for judges. But now that respect had turned to shame. The judge, in one of his very few rejoinders, queried “and for prosecutors?” “No, never, never for prosecutors” came back the answer and the whole packed courtroom roared with laughter.

By early afternoon, we had heard only 13 of the 46 defendants. The judge refused to continue the hearing on the next day. He was “busy” and said he would close the trial at 4.55pm.  He demanded that no defendant now speak for more than 15 minutes but it was clear that many defendants would not be heard this day. 

In the end, the hearing continued until 8.00pm with rousing speeches from senior members of the Turkish bars calling for the release of all the lawyers from prison this night, and a dropping of all the charges against them. 

They spoke for all the defendants since most were arguing the same point: as lawyers we are simply doing our professional job; the phone-tapping, bugging of our conversations with our client, raiding of our homes and offices, seizing of our files was unlawful; the allegation of membership of an illegal organisation is a fantasy totally unsupported by evidence.  

The most eloquent of all was Bahri Bayram Belen. Although I understand not a word of Turkish or Kurdish, his splendid oratory, his dramatic pauses, his brilliant gestures of arms and hands, the wonderful range of his voice tones, was compelling and memorable. “Release them all. All should be free.”

It was not to be.  The case was adjourned for the fifth time to June 12th. The prosecutor ordered the immediate arrests and detention of two bailed defendants who had failed to appear today. (Surely, there must be some good reason: Illness? Accident?)

Only 4 of the imprisoned defendants were given bail.  There remain 22 lawyers still in prison for the next three months.  And in other cities lawyers, such as those belonging to the Progressive Lawyers Association (CHD), continue to be arrested and detained.

The international delegations presented their petition to the Judge. He saw we were there. But does it make any difference?  Yes, a small step forward via the new law on mother tongue rights in court. But nothing much has really changed. May 6th sees the resumption of the big KCK trial in Diyarbakir.

Where do all these attacks on the lawyers representing the Kurdish leader leave the prospect of progress on securing the peace?  The AKP, under Erdogan, is talking to Ocalan, but if the lawyers do’ their discourses, that is, the lawyer-client relationship, is regarded as criminal.

It does not make sense. So not much rejoicing.  But we, the international delegations, must be sure to be here again in force, in Istanbul in June, and in Diyarbakir, in May, for the KCK Trial.

As lawyers, we must show solidarity with those of our profession who are being persecuted.

And it’s time, surely, for the ICJ to send an observer. Turkey must be made to reform its justice system if it is to be a respected member of the or to be accepted into the European Community

28 March 2013