On 18 October the Diyarbekir High Criminal Court began proceedings against 152 Kurds (104 of who are in detention), political figures or members of Human Rights Defence organisations. They are charged with being members of the PKK, in the grounds of membership of the Kurdistan Democratic Confederation (KNC). Some European intellectuals and defenders have come to attend the trial, which is being held under strict police supervision.
The 7,500-page charge sheet could lead the sentences of between 5 years and life for membership of “a terrorist organisation”, °endangering the unity of the State”, “terrorist propaganda” and even “supporting a terrorist organisation”. Among the accused, the Mayor of Diyarbekir, Osman Baydemir, faces 36 years imprisonment. Eleven other Kurdish mayors are being tried with him. All are members of the BDP.
However, from the opening of the trial, discussion has moved from the charge sheet itself to what language could be used by the defence. Indeed, the lawyers have demanded the right to express themselves in Kurdish, as have their clients, claiming the right to be heard and tried in one’s mother tongue. The demand has been rejected out of hand by the court, which thus refused to record remarks made “in a language that does not exist”, arguing that the interrogations and statements had all been conducted in Turkish and that having recourse to interpreters would only prolong the proceedings. Indeed, reading the long charge sheet had already taken three weeks.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, one of the lawyers, compared this negation of the Kurdish language to that which had occurred during the trial of former mayor of Diyarbekir, Mehdi Zana, who had also wanted to defend himself in Kurdish. At that time the Court had refused to take his defence speech into account, declaring that the accused had simply used his “right to remain silent”.
The defence had invited Professor Baskin Oran, to speak before the court, as an expert in law and politics, regarding the right to use Kurdish in Court. He based himself on the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between Turkey and the League of Nations, which forms the legal basis of the Turkish State in International Law. Indeed, Article 39/5 of this Treaty declares that, notwithstanding the existence of an official language, the appropriate facilities should be given to non-Turkish speaking citizens of Turkey to use their own language before the Courts. Thus this includes the use of interpreters.
Since the Court refused to hear Baskin Oran, the latter stated that this would lead to the possibility of invalidating the whole trial: “The refusal to hear an expert is grounds for the Appeal Courts to quash a verdict. Even the fact that I was not heard as a single person is grounds for the Court of Appeal to quash the verdict”.
Thus tension increased and the lawyers complained of the presence of policemen (some plainclothes officers of the Anti-Terrorist Section) at the hearing as well as the security cordon separating them from their clients. However, the Court refused to raise the cordon and the whole day of the 20th October was spent in reading a 990-page summary of the charge sheet.
Two days later, on 22 October, 47 members of the KNC, 22 of whom were detainees, were brought before the 8th Chamber of the Adana Criminal Court. Te same request to express themselves in Kurdish was made by their lawyer, Vedat Ozkan, who called on the court of make a courageous decision, raising the issue of his clients’ right to present their defence in Kurdish.
Amongst those arrested in the 8 August 2008 wave of mass arrests, was the mayor of Misis, Burhan Aras, former Adana branch President of the banned DTP party, the mayor of Seyhan, Mehmet Nardan, and the mayor of Yoregit, Durmaz Ozmen.
Also on the dock, with the same charges, was Kenan Karavil, director of publicity of Adana’s Radio Dunya. He had been arrested a year later, on 19 December 2009, and is still in detention. He is charged with “crimes in support of an illegal organisation” and of “propaganda” for that organisation and faces a 22-and a half-year prison sentence.
Amongst the representatives of associations for defending Human Rights, the FIDH, present at the Diyarbekir trial, called on the government to release all those still in detention Thus its President, Souhayr Belhassan, declared at meeting held on 22 October, in the Istanbul offices of the IHD (Association for Human Rights): “Some of the accused in this trial have been in detention for 18 months and their lawyers have been unable to secure copies if the case against them. These detentions are a denial of the presumption of innocence before trial. This trial is completely unbalanced”.
Be Hassan also recalled the generally bad conditions in Turkish prisons: with a capacity of 65,000 detainees, they contain at present 122,000 prisoners, which leads to health problems and ill treatment. Of these, 13 were suffering from cancer in its terminal stage. Pointing out that he had spoken about those dying to the Minister of Justice, Sadullah Ergin, the FTDH President added that he had been promised to be allowed to visit these prisoners, without this having been followed through.
Finally, it seems that the use of torture has increased since 2005, although its complete suppression was one of Turkey’s main commitments to the European Union to ease its joining.
Questioned by a journalist from Bianet, about the case of children imprisoned for “terrorism”, Souheyr Belhassan said he considered this situation “unacceptable”.
Finally, on 8 October, after having cut off the defence’s microphone whenever it tried to speak in Kurdish, the 6th Diyarbekir Chamber decided to send the case to the 4th Criminal Court Chamber, which will have to rule on the whether of not there was any right to use a language other than Turkish in a trial.
However, this issue has hit home and other trials in which Kurds are involved have been faced with the same demands, and met with the same refusal: thus the Istanbul 11th Criminal Chamber has refused a lawyer Songul Sicakyz to speak in Kurdish since she is also able to speak in Turkish. It should be noted, however, that this court’s ruling clearly mentions the Kurdish language, unlike Diyarbekir’s 6th Chamber, which described it as “unknown” when justifying the refusal on the grounds that the magistrates only understood Turkish (without envisaging the use of interpreters).
Since then, street demonstrations have taken place in towns like Sirnak or Kars, to demand the right of Kurds to defend themselves in their, other tongue before the courts and be defended in the same language.
Moreover, the sociologist Ismail Besikci, who has several times been sentences throughout his career for having dared affirm the existence of a Kurdish people, is now being accused, together with Zeycan Balci Simsek, a lawyer, of propaganda for the PKK. The evidence being used against him is the use of the letter Q, which does not exist in the Turkish alphabet. Once again, it is the Istanbul 11th chamber that is due to rule on this.
Zeycan Balci Simsek, editorial director of periodical “Law and contemporary Society” published by a lawyers association, is being sued for having allowed an article to appear written by this famous sociologist: “The Kurds and the right of nations to Self-Determination”. According to the Public Prosecutor, Besikci’s most aggravating offence was that he spelt the mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan where the PKK has installed its bases, “Qandil”, instead of Kandil, which is its Turkish form. The Prosecution is calling for 7 and a half years jail for this offence …
Their lawyer, Taylan Tanay, has the Prosecution whether they spelt “New York” with a w or with a v and whether they intended to seize all computers throughout Turkey whose keyboards contained the letter Q. So far, there has been no reply.
On 28 October, the Iraqi High Criminal Court sentenced three high-ranking dignitaries of the old regime to death. They were the former Minister of the Interior, Saadun Saker, Saddam Hussein’s Chief of Staff, Abed Hamid Hmud, and the former Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, now 74 years of age.
The only Christian among in the leadership of the Baath government, Tariq Aziz had given himself up too the Americans in April 2003. So far he has been one of the few people close to the former Raïs to escape hanging. Deputy Prime Minister since 1991, he had long been the Foreign Minister and acted as spokesman for the old regime. This made him well known to the public internationally, through his televised performances in both the Gulf Wars.
Tariq Aziz had already been twice sentenced to prison: once in 1992 to 15 years, for having taken part in the execution of 42 Iraqi businessmen, and once to 7 years for his role in the forcible mass displacement of Kurds from Kirkuk in the 80s.
Very quickly, many leading political figures and Heads of State (including that of the Vatican) and NGOs raised their voices to call for the commuting of his death sentence either on the grounds of his age and state of health or because of his religion or again because his role in the criminal exactions of the Saddam Hussein regime was considered fairly minor.
The Director of the Iraqi Human Rights and Democracy Commission, Hassan Shaban, stated on the Kurdish News Channel, Aknews, that this sentence was “severe and contrary to the principles of human rights”. “The Iraqi Penal Code states that anyone over 70 years of age should be spared capital punishment. The decision of the Federal Court contains serious errors”.
Tariq Aziz’s son stated on the BBC that this verdict did not surprise him, although he considered his father was innocent. “They want to kill all those who took any part in the former government (…) He was a politician, he had nothing to do with security”.
Amnesty International has also called on the Iraqi authorities not to carry out these three executions. “Saddam Hussein’s government was synonymous with executions, torture and other serious violations of Human Rights and it is fair that those who committed such crimes be brought before the courts”, explained Malcolm Stuart, head of Amnesty’s department for the Middle East and North Africa. “It is, however, vital that the death sentence, which is the ultimate denial of human rights be never more used, however serious the crime. It is also time for the Iraqi government to turn the page on this funeral cycle. It would be a step forward if there were an end to all these executions and if the sentences on all those waiting in death row were commuted. By our estimate, there are several hundreds of them”.
Amnesty International also expressed concern regarding courts’ independence of political pressure. “Trials in conformity with international criteria are essential. Political pressures should, in general, not be allowed for any trials. But especially for those that could carry the death sentence”.
On 19 September, a religious service took place in the former Armenian Church of Aktamar. However, as this church had been converted into a museum and was no longer a mainly used for services, there was little Armenian reaction to the event. On the other hand, the renewal of the roof of the Sourp Giragos Church, which had collapsed over ten tears ago, was the occasion for a reception organised by the Town Hall, and the building is due to remain a place of worship of the Armenian Church.
The Mayor of Diyarbekir, Osman Baydemir, stated to the few Armenians still living in the town, as well as to Archbishop Aram Atesian from the Istanbul Patriarchy and so some Armenians from Istanbul who had come for the occasion: “This town is yours as well as mine. You have as much right to this town as I”.
This declaration had the effect of setting the teeth on edge of the Turkish ultra-nationalists, for whom there is no Vatan (nation) outside an intransigent Turkishness and who consider the Christians (Greek, Armenian or Syriac) are, and should remain “Turkish citizens of foreign nationality”, (as defined by Ruling N°2 of the Istanbul Administrative Court on 17 April 1996). This could raise the spectre of Armenian “territorial claims” in the eastern regions by way of compensation, should Turkey’s genocide be generally recognised.
However, from the Kurdish viewpoint, this re-establishes the historic rehabilitation of Diyarbekir as a multi-ethnic and multi-faith city, affirming its struggle for the recognition of the country’s cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.
Sourp Giragos, once the restoration is finally completed, will be run by the Armenian Patriarchy of Istanbul. The total cost is estimated at $2.5 million.
In surface area, Lake Urmia is the second biggest salt lake in the World (after that near Salt Lake City, in the USA). Its area is 464,000 hectares (1.25 million acres) and it contains 17 billion cubic metres of water. It is 135 Km long and its width varies between 18 and 55 km. Its depth, at its deepest point, was between 12 and 16 m prior to 1995. It contains 105 islands, natural niches for a number of species of birds and animals, sedentary and migratory.
Yet this salt lake, that is straddles Iranian Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, has dried up by 60% and experts consider that it might completely disappear in the next three years of so, according to the alarming reports of the Urmia Agency for the Environmental Protection. Already its degree of salinity is a threat to the health of the population living on its banks as well, obviously as the natural fauna.
The major factors responsible for this are the increasingly numerous dams on the various watercourses that feed the lake, as well as the industrial waste poured into it. In 1976, UNESCO has classed it banks as a biosphere reserve. However, for the last 15 years, the water level has been dropping continuously and the drought hat has been ravaging the Middle East for the last 2 years has not improved matters. The depth has dropped by 6 m since 1995, and is continuing to drop.
Its salinity is now 340 grs/litres (previously it was between 180 and 200), which is threatening the local fauna and flora, not to mention the many species of migratory birds: pink flamingos, pelicans, ibis, cranes, avocets and gulls. Some mammalian species like deer (the Iranian yellow deer) could completely disappear from the region. In all the area round the lake shelters 212 bird species, 41 reptiles, 7 amphibians, and 27 species of mammals. It is also the natural habitat of artemia salina, a variety of brine shrimp that constitutes the main nourishment of flamingos and other migrating birds. As agriculture and tourism are also threatened, hundreds of villages are likely to become deserted.
The Iranian government admits the tragic development that Lake Urmia is experiencing but the official commission is more inclined to blame the changes in climate or the alleged presence of algae to explain the reddish colour of its waters. Other experts insist on the harmful effect of human activity. They cite the building of a 130 Km long highway, part of which crosses the lake over a one and a half Km bridge as well as the building of a dam on the lake itself. Building this required banking up with several million ton of earth and stone extracted from the adjoining mountains, which has blocked the natural water flows.
Officially opened in 2008, this bridge cost 120 million dollars. It enables more rapid travelling from Urmia to Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan. There are, moreover, plans to widen this road as well as build a railway along it.
Over 2 million dollars have been allocated to saving the lake. Among the projected measures are seeding clouds to encourage rainfall, a better use of sub-soil waters near the lake and a whole scale revision of the irrigation system for agricultural land.
30 September, the Kurdish singer, Hama Jaza, who was very popular in Iraqi Kurdistan, died at Suleimaniyah. He was 61 years of age and a former Peshmerga.
Born in 1949, Mohammad Hama Jaza became famous in the 70s through his patriotic songs that supported the Kurdish resistance. He continued his activity as both fighter and artist throughout the 80s and 90s, before emigrating with his family to Denmark, where he continued singing. He then performed in several European countries, in Canada and the USA.
After returning to his homeland a few years ago, he finally died of the cancer, of which he had been suffering for several years, in Suleimaniyah. He was buried surrounded by a crowd of admirers, who had come specially to pay tribute to him as well as by government and NGO officials.