Turkish court hears trial of 108 people involved in violent Kobane protests

(Updated with developments throughout)

A trial of 108 people accused by Turkish prosecutors of terrorism, murder and violence during pro-Kurdish protests six years ago began on Monday, local media including Birgün newspaper reported.

At least 34 people were killed in the October 2014 demonstrations against an Islamic State (ISIS) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The protests spread from the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey to several other provinces.

Most of the suspects are members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in Turkey’s parliament, and include the HDP’s imprisoned former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ.  

Birgün said that the trial in the capital Ankara began in controversial circumstances when lawyers representing some of the defendants were not allowed into the courtroom due to COVID-19 restrictions. The lawyers made a statement outside saying their rights to conduct a defence had been violated.

Prosecutors have charged the suspects with various crimes, including first degree murder, attempted murder, violating the integrity of the state, robbery and incitement to violence.

The Turkish security forces cracked down heavily on the protests, using tear gas and water cannons. The BBC reported that several people were killed when police fired on them. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly blamed the HDP for the deaths. The demonstrations became more violent after Erdoğan said Kobane would fall and Turkey would not repel the attack by ISIS.

Members of the pro-Kurdish HDP told the court that a trial could not take place without the right to defence and they would refuse to answer any questions in the absence of their lawyers, Duvar news site reported.

Former HDP co-chairs Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ attended Monday’s hearing via closed-circuit camerasystem (SEGBİS).

Demirtaş stressed that the court was given information on the number of lawyers that were to attend the hearing, and called for the court to take a recess to solve the issue.

Later on, both politicians held hand-written notes that they could not see or hear the trial for 10 minutes due to technical troubles with the SEGBİS system

At one point, Demirtaş held a sign that read "Where is the 128 billion dollars?” a reference to a claim that the country’s central bank spent $128 billion of its foreign currency reserves last year as the lira fell to successive record lows.

Critics of the case compiled by prosecutors point out that in the months after the 2014 Kobane events, top officials of the HDP and Turkey’s governing party met in Istanbul to agree a framework for Kurdish peace talks.

Demirtaş, the HDP’s most prominent politician, is in jail for alleged terrorism offences.

Demirtaş’s own legal ordeal began in November 2016, when he was charged with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed militant group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984. He remains behind bars despite several court orders for his release, including the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Erdoğan’s government has also seized scores of mayoral offices of the HDP throughout the southeast of the country, won in local elections in 2019, accusing officials of links to the PKK. The government has replaced them with their own appointees.

The PKK has fought its four-decade war for autonomy for Turkey’s estimated 15 million ethnic Kurds at the cost of about 40,000 lives. The overwhelming majority of the dead are Kurdish. The PKK is labelled as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.