The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales has published its interim report in the ongoing cases of Selahattin Demirtaş v Turkey and Veysel Ok v Turkey.  Mr Demirtaş is the well-known former member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (Parliament) and Presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s third largest political party, who is charged on a multi-count indictment alleging incitement and support for terrorism. The prosecution case is based almost exclusively on texts of his public speeches.  Mr Demirtaş denies supporting terrorism and asserts in his defence that he was a prominent participant in the Kurdish peace process and the prosecution is a direct attack on freedom of expression and the freedom to take part in the democratic process. The ECtHR has already ruled that his continuing detention is arbitrary and politically motivated – that decision has now been referred to the Grand Chamber which will consider the case on 18 September 2019. 

Mr Veysel Ok is a lawyer indicted with a single charge of insulting the judiciary, based upon a newspaper interview he had given during which he had questioned the independence of the judiciary.

The report was written by BHRC Executive Committee Member Pete Weatherby QC following his observations of the latest hearings of the Demirtas and Ok trials (18-19 and 20 June 2019, respectively).  The report evaluates the proceedings’ compliance with international and domestic fair trial standards and raises concerns over the lack of independence of the judiciary, arbitrary detention, interference with freedom of expression and the democratic process, and the prosecution and harassment of human rights lawyers.

The report notes with particular concern the continued detention of Mr Demirtas in light of the recent judgement of the European Court of Human Rights which found violations of Article 5(3) (excessive pre-trial detention), Article 3 to Protocol 1 (the detention interfered with the right to free elections under conditions which ensure the free expression of the will of the people), and Article 18 (the interference with Article 5 was for an improper motive: “it pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”).

Concern is also raised by the fact that the prosecution in the Demirtaş cases is seeking sentences amounting to between 43 and 142 years imprisonment.   Mr. Demirtaş is 46 years of age and such a sentence could have the same effect as a whole life term, even taking account of early release provisions.  The seeking of such disproportionate sentences adds to concerns as to the real political purpose of the trial.

In its recommendations, BHRC strongly urges the Turkish government to reconsider its approach to judicial reform: in particular to reverse constitutional amendments which give effective control of the judiciary to the executive.  BHRC also calls for a fair process to be applied to reinstatement of hundreds of judges, prosecutors, academics and other officials, who have been dismissed since the attempted 2016 coup. BHRC also recommends that the prosecution reconsider the charges in both cases and the continued detention of Mr Demirtas, in light of BHRC’s concern that “these proceedings have the appearance of a political trial being conducted to disrupt the proper democratic process.”   

Veysel Ok’s trial highlights the plight of hundreds of lawyers who are being criminalised, detained and prevented from practicing their profession for political purposes.  Clear international standards require the Turkish state to defend lawyers and ensure that they are able to operate in an environment without fear of arrest or harassment.

Trial Observer Pete Weatherby QC stated:

“The European Court of Human Rights recently held that the continuing detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the third largest party in Turkey, who is on trial for incitement and supporting ’terrorism’ through his public speeches, is not just arbitrary but politically motivated.  The fact that detention has been continued by a further decision of judges at the end off the latest stage of the trial is worrying.  It provides evidence that international concerns about the independence of the Turkish judiciary are well founded, that the criminal process is being used to silence political critics of the government, and that freedom of expression in Turkey is at a low point.”

The next stage of the trial is scheduled to begin today, 02 September, but Mr Demirtaş and his lawyers are declining to take part until after the Grand Chambers reviews the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights on 18 September.

POST UPDATE: The report has been updated at p3 and footnote 17 following a communication from the Turkish Ministry of Justice to provide further clarification on this point.