Demirtaş’s testimony sheds light on Turkey’s recent history

Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been jailed since 2016 on terrorism charges, has been testifying since Wednesday at the third hearing of his trial.

Demirtaş was jailed in November 2016 and charged with membership of a terrorist organisation and making terrorist propaganda, both in relation to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had until 2015 been running a peace process after decades of conflict between Turkish armed forces and the PKK since it launched a separatist insurgency in the mid 1980s.

During his testimony, Demirtaş provided his account of the period from the start of the peace process in Turkey in 2013 until his arrest. 

The 2013 peace or "solution" process, was the AKP's second attempt at a peaceful resolution to Turkey's Kurdish question since coming to power in 2002. It for the first time raised hopes for peace in Turkey as it included negotiations with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, which resulted in the PKK announcing its forces' withdrawal from Turkey.

Wise People Commissions composed of celebrities were set up as part of an initiative to convince people in Turkey of the benefits of peace after almost 30 years of war, while legal reforms were also made. 

However, the process began to stagger as a result of the Syrian civil war, which unnerved Ankara as PKK-affiliated groups gained autonomy on the Syrian-Turkish border, and resulted in allegations that the Turkish government was taking the side of extremist jihadist groups against Syrian Kurds.

The process came to an end when a group allegedly linked to the PKK carried out an attack killing two policemen in July 2015, shortly after the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish party to break Turkey's ten percent election threshold and gain representation in parliament.

On Wednesday, Demirtaş told the court that high-placed members of the Gülen movement, the religious group blamed for the failed 2016 coup, had plotted against peace efforts between the government and Kurdistan Workers' Party. Demirtaş said Gülenists had tried to put the government in a difficult situation and make it impossible to continue the peace process, while Gülenists in the judiciary had drawn up charges from intelligence reports which he said were now being used against him as evidence. 

“Throughout my political career, I have never received any instructions from a member or an executive of the PKK, I would not have accepted it even if I received such an instruction, and everyone is aware of my attitude,” Demirtaş said on Wednesday, remarking on allegations that he had received instructions from PKK to establish two commissions to work on democratic autonomy and education in Kurdish during the solution process.

Demirtaş explained the coordination between the government and the HDP during the peace process: “On Mar. 21, 2013, during the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır, Abdullah Öcalan called on the PKK to lay down its arms. The solution process progressed rapidly after that day, our delegations, myself included, started working intensively with İmralı (prison, where Öcalan is held), and Qandil (mountains, the location of the PKK's headquarters), as well as the government and bureaucrats in Ankara. The government was conducting a social support work from its side, while we did the same from our side”.

He also talked about their cooperation with the government during the massive demonstrations in Turkey in October 2014, after Turkish president Erdoğan said that Kobani, a Kurdish town in Syria, was to fall to Islamic State (ISIS) forces. Demirtaş said that he had returned from the United States immediately after he heard about the events and held a meeting with Yalçın Akdoğan, the deputy prime minister at the time. Both agreed that steps should be taken to break the widespread perception that there was a relation between the Turkish government and the Islamic State. 

“It was a meeting during which both sides were under tension, but eventually we reached an agreement. I told Ahmet Davutoğlu (the prime minister at the time) that when leaving the Prime Ministry I would announce that the meeting was very positive, would thank the government and say it had a positive attitude,” Demirtaş said, adding that in return the government promised to invite Salih Müslim (then leader of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party) to Turkey to discuss their demands and expectations from Turkey. That meeting took place two days later."

According to Demirtaş, on Oct. 6, six days after the meeting in Ankara, the situation got worse and demonstrations began inside Turkey. He called Prime Minister Davutoğlu: “The message he gave was that, more or less, I read in quotations, his words meant ; ‘Have you learnt your lesson, you require our help like that, even a leaf cannot move in Middle East without us. That is what happens when Kurds act without us. Now do whatever you can.'” 

Demirtaş explained that he could not believe the reaction of Davutoğlu and that (HDP) party authorities felt obliged to make a short announcement that evening and massive demonstrations started. “But that day, we made this announcement because we thought we had to reveal our political attitude. We did not expect that there would be demonstrations, people would take the streets, there would be provocative demonstrations,” he added.

Demirtaş went on saying that they had tried to calm events during the next two days and had been in touch with Efkan Ala, the Minister of the Interior at the time. He said Ala had told them that some elements of the Turkish security forces were acting outside of the Ministry’s control. Both sides, said Demirtaş, thought that a serious provocation had taken place. 

On Oct. 8 2014, two police officers were killed and a police chief seriously injured in an assassination attempt in the southeastern city of Bingöl. Demirtas said Ala had asked them to get in touch with Qandil to confirm whether it was a PKK attack or not before the public heard the news. As a result, the HDP used a special communication mechanism to contact senior PKK members, who denied any relation to the event. Demirtaş said he had passed the message to HDP politician Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who talked to the Minister of Interior.

“Sırrı Süreyya Önder says, ‘When I passed the message to Efkan Ala, he heaved a sign of relief and said we would not be able to get out of this situation if it was otherwise. On the one side there are provocative events, on the other side PKK attacks start again. This would have made the situation even more complicated. A short while later, Prime Minister Davutoğlu announced ‘We took the revenge for the Bingöl police chief and our martyred colleagues. We killed four PKK terrorists when they were leaving the city’. That was Davutoğlu’s statement.”

On the second day of the trial, Demirtaş read the AKP’s party programme prepared for the elections held on Nov. 1, 2015, to prove that autonomy was in fact a proposal also embraced by the party in power. 

“They have also supported a version of autonomy in their election manifesto, government programme, party programme. In our autonomy model, the powers of local governments are more comprehensive politically and administratively. The AKP proposed the same by keeping more powers in the central administration and on the basis of the European Charter of Local Self Government,” Demirtaş said.

Demirtaş noted that the AKP had not kept its promise and instead brought a presidential system, while making concerted efforts to associate the HDP's notion of autonomy with barricades built by militants in some Kurdish towns in summer 2015, as the AKP started a security operation in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Demirtaş added that he and his colleagues had gone to those towns to convince people to seek a peaceful solution, soon after it emerged that Kurdish forces were digging in to prepare a military defence against the Turkish security forces. 

“The mainstream media did not reflect the speeches we made in those localities, but neither did the Kurdish media. The media did not publish news about those speeches, in order to make myself and the HDP appear to be responsible of those trenches,” told Demirtaş.

On the last day of the hearing, Demirtaş said that there was a great pressure over the courts to put him in a situation so that he could be barred from politics.  

“They can ban me from politics but even my dead body would be more effective politically then some others who are alive. When they ban me from politics, they would not be able to add to the decision to cut the ties of respect and love between me and the people. Even if they ban me from politics for my entire life, I am a politician,” he said.

"I have no expectation of justice from your court. I went to prison with my head held high, I'll leave like that. If I die in prison, my last will to my friends is to carry my coffin with their heads high,” Demirtaş concluded.