A courthouse with exposed pipes

2 January 2019

by Devran Hacı Bişkin 

“We do not like your courts. This is nothing but a former gym. What kind of a courthouse has pipes out in the open? It is us who renounce you and your courts.”

It’s 12 January 2018. The arrested former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, is being taken from Edirne Prison, where he is kept under arrest, to Bakırköy Courthouse in Istanbul. The charges against him? “Insulting the president.”

Thousands of people are gathered in front of the courthouse hours before the hearing, just to see and hear Demirtaş. As the hearing time approaches, slogans of “Freedom to Demirtaş” resound in the corridors of the courthouse. Security officials address the crowd, informing them that only 60 people will be allowed into the courtroom, prompting dozens waiting in the corridors to make a move for the room.

 The media shows an intense interest as this is the first time that Demirtaş will attend a hearing. We, as reporters, come to an agreement: Those who can make it into the hearing room will come out at certain intervals to let other colleagues go in. Lawyers demand a larger room to allow the press and foreign delegations to observe the hearing, but the request is rejected.

We try to enter the room after security guards say that a mere 15 journalists will be permitted in. But for us, there’s an even bigger problem: Those without a state press card will not be allowed to enter! 

None of the 15 journalists hold that yellow card. Still, we try to enter the hearing room with our IDs from our media outlets. All of a sudden, before any of our 15-person allotment has made it in, we hear that no one else will be allowed into the room as “there is no space left.” Following another appeal by lawyers, a few members of the press make it in; others wait outside the gate to switch places with colleagues inside.

I am finally inside the hearing room. Everyone expects Demirtaş to take the suspect  stand but  he heads to the witness box. We, a few reporters in the 60-person room, stand and take notes. But this is not easy because of the sound of the slogans from the corridors and outside the courthouse. A woman, covering  her mouth with her headscarf, starts speaking Kurdish when she sees Demirtaş:

“Di destê wî de kelepçe tuneye. Çavê wan tê nedibirî ku wî kelepçe bikin.…” (No handcuffs. They wouldn’t dare handcuff him).

The voices of hundreds of people, who have been chanting “President Selo [a common nickname for Selahattin]” and “We are all Demirtaş,” in the courthouse’s yard can be heard from inside. The presiding judge continues the hearing only after ordering someone to shut the windows. A few minutes later, the same voices start coming from the corridors. Following another order to shut the door, a woman from the rear seats yells “This is the truth; this is reality.”

The panel of judges postpones the hearing until 17 May in order to make a decision on Demirtaş and his lawyers’ demand to take the trial to the Constitutional Court. We, in the meantime, cannot understand why the hearing didn’t take as long as the previous ones. 

Hundreds of people curious to know why the hearing ended so soon are gathering around the lawyers and journalists. The lawyers tell the supporters that the hearing was positive and that Demirtaş says “Hello to everyone.”

 Meanwhile, police officers at the gate to the courthouse randomly check the IDs of passersby. Now they keep me waiting for a number of minutes for an ID check in the courthouse that I was barely able to enter earlier in the day. They ask me if I am a lawyer; I respond that I am a journalist, prompting them to ask for my press ID. The problem in the courthouse repeats itself: Police officers think that press IDs should be yellow. One officer says that if I show the same card when asked for a press ID, I would be committing the crime of “forging official documents.” This time, however, I’m lucky enough to leave without facing further trouble.

On 16 March 2018, Demirtaş appears before another judge, this time with former HDP lawmaker Sırrı Süreyya Önder. The indictment penned for Demirtaş and Önder consists of speeches they made on Newroz, a new year’s day in Asia which is widely celebrated by Kurds, in 2013. The hearing is at the Alibey Hearing Room in Silivri on the outskirts of Istanbul. This place used to be a sports hall, but it was transformed into a hearing room so that authorities could bring the “FETÖ trials” to Silivri.

It’s not hard to guess that I will have a “yellow press card” issue while trying to enter the courtroom. There is slightly less media interest in the hearing as compared to Demirtaş’s previous hearings, as just a handful of reporters are here to cover the hearing. I walk through the crowd and try to enter the hearing room. Probably due to the limited media interest in the hearing, I do not face much trouble making it inside. Those who do not hold a yellow press card are allowed in after obtaining the judge’s permission.

I wear a card reading “Press,” pass through the crowd and start waiting for the hearing room to open. A woman asks me if I speak Kurdish. After speaking in Kurdish with her, she says:

“Write the truth. We should hear the truth when we go home and turn on the TV.”

While I am listening to her complaints about journalists, the door to the hearing room opens. 

I go to the right side of the room, which has been set aside for the press, and start following the hearing with a few reporters. When the hearing starts, Demirtaş turns to the prosecution and says “Mr. Prosecutor did not study the indictment,” claiming that the recordings from the Newroz speeches were transcribed improperly and taken out of context. He demands that an impartial expert inspect the voice recordings, notes that the trial violates the constitution and demands that the case be dropped.

The prosecution objects to these demands, except for the demand for an expert to transcribe the voice recordings, and the hearing goes to a break.

Later, we’re back in the hearing room. But this time, it is not the journalists but the lawyers who are not permitted in because they have objected to a body search. The hearing begins amid verbal sparring between the lawyers and security officials. After the chief judge is informed that the lawyers have not been allowed inside (just a few have made it in), the hearing goes to another break. This time, the lawyers are allowed in without a body search on the order of the judge.

The court panel sits and passes its decision. The court unanimously decides to reject all the demands, including the demand that the expert look at the transcriptions of the voice recordings. Then Demirtaş demands a recusal, saying: “You are not impartial. This is why I ask for your recusal.” The court rejects Demirtaş’s demand for a recusal, too.

We rarely witness any court reject a prosecutor’s demands at a hearing, but the rejection of Demirtaş’s demand, which was also recognized by the prosecutor, is one rare example of this.

The hearing at the Silivri Alibey hearing room is different than many other hearings. The audience is very reactive. But while reporters are allowed inside, this is probably the first time that authorities have attempted to prevent lawyers from entering.

As Demirtaş is taken out of the room, authorities attempt to remove those inside the courtroom first. However, his supporters resist this and refuse to leave to go until Demirtaş is escorted out. After waving to the audience, he is taken out by the gendarmerie.

The followers of the trial, angry at the judges, cannot understand why all the demands were rejected. Some people ask the lawyers questions about the nature of the decision, while others ask the reporters. “We do not like your courts. This is nothing but a former gym. What kind of a courthouse has pipes out in the open? It is us who renounce you and your courts,” one supporter of Demirtaş tells a security official before leaving the courthouse.

Nine months after this hearing, Demirtaş was sentenced to four years and eight months in jail, while Önder was sentenced to three years and six months. On 21 November 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Demirtaş’s release. But just 12 days after the ECHR ruling, an appeals court upheld the local court’s decision. And with that, another ECHR decision has become null and void.

This article was published as part of “Stories of Justice,” a project supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.