x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Kurdish political trial moves into key chapter

Opposition officials begin their defence in Turkey's Constitutional Court, as European Union watches proceedings with interest.

ISTANBUL // A trial that could result in a ban of Turkey's main Kurdish party by the country's Constitutional Court before the end of the year has entered its final phase with the party presenting its defence before a panel of 11 judges, while intellectuals and EU officials have been calling on the court not to dissolve the party.

Although Turkey's judiciary has banned Kurdish parties before, the trial against the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, is the first such effort against a Kurdish group represented in parliament since Turkey started negotiations in 2005 to join the European Union. The EU is watching the trial. France's ambassador in Turkey, Bernard Emie, speaking as representative of the current EU presidency, criticised the procedure. Trials like the one against the DTP were "developments contrary to the wishes of the people", the ambassador said.

For Turkey, the broader question behind the case against the DTP is if and at what point the peaceful exercise of political rights in a democracy can become a threat to national unity, a core value of the Turkish republic. Bans of three Kurdish parties in the 15 years since 1993 show that the Turkish judiciary has traditionally taken the view that parties demanding more rights for Kurds can constitute a danger for the country. But Turkey's EU reform programme has strengthened individual and political rights, fanning a debate about the legitimacy and effectiveness of party bans.

"Let's say they have banned the DTP. Will the Kurdish problem then dissolve?" wrote Ahmet Altan, a well-known intellectual and editor of Taraf, a daily newspaper. "No, it will be worse than before. Kurds will rightly think that they are being treated as second-class citizens." More than 30,000 people have died in clashes between the Turkish army and members of the Kurdish rebel group Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been fighting Ankara since 1984 and is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. The PKK originally said it was fighting for a separate Kurdish state but has since said it wants more autonomy for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds, a general amnesty and a withdrawal of the Turkish army from Kurdish regions. Ankara rejects those demands.

DTP officials as well as members of Turkey's pro-European reform camp argue that disbanding the DTP would deal a blow to Turkish democracy and probably exacerbate the Kurdish conflict. "A ban of the DTP would dry out hopes for a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem," Zeynep Tanbay, a spokeswoman of an informal alliance of pro-democracy groups said at a meeting in Istanbul. A verdict in the DTP trial is expected soon.

In court last week, DTP leaders stressed that the party had no organic links with the PKK. "Our party is a chance for Turkish democracy," DTP's leader, Ahmet Turk, told the court in his defence speech, according to newspaper reports. In his presentation, Mr Turk said the existence of the PKK was not the cause of the Kurdish conflict but a consequence of it. Turkey is under pressure to solve the Kurdish conflict peacefully. The DTP's success in last year's parliamentary elections, when it entered parliament with 21 deputies and formed the first Kurdish parliamentary group in Turkish history, was hailed as a breakthrough. But in November, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief prosecutor, asked the Constitutional Court to ban the DTP on the grounds that it had been founded on the orders of the PKK's jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

The move was met with criticism by the EU. "We prefer to have the DTP in parliament instead of in the mountains" fighting the Turkish state, Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, said at the time. The widening of political rights through Turkey's EU reforms in recent years offers some hope for the DTP. In January, the Constitutional Court rejected a demand by the prosecution to ban a smaller Kurdish party, the Party for Right and Freedom, or Hak-Par. Five judges voted against a ban, saying the party's ideas for a solution of the Kurdish problems were within the limits of free speech. Six judges voted in favour of a ban, but the votes of at least seven judges of the Constitutional Court are necessary to ban a party.

In a separate trial, the court also declined to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Turk told the court that Turkey had still not developed into a democracy despite the 10 reform packages that have gone through parliament in the past few years and called on judges to reject the demand of the prosecution to close down the DTP. Mr Turk did not sound optimistic after his day in court. There had not been a single question by any of the 11 judges after his defence speech, he told Hurriyet, a daily newspaper."In their eyes we carry some mortal disease."

tseibert@thenational.ae