The Kobani verdicts: Dissecting a political trial

Like the Gezi Trial, Kobani Case is one of the political trials that could potentially be overturned if the political climate changes, similar to how the Ergenekon series of trials were dismissed when the political environment shifted.

The Ankara 22nd High Criminal Court handed down heavy sentences in the Kobani Trial on May 16. The most notable were the 42-year sentence for Selahattin Demirtaş and the 30-year sentence for Figen Yüksekdağ, both of whom were co-chairs of the HDP at the time. Their sentences were the natural headline in media.

Like the Gezi Trial, Kobani Case is one of the political trials that could potentially be overturned if the political climate changes, similar to how the Ergenekon series of trials were dismissed when the political environment shifted. The case is significant due to its connection to both the Kurdish issue and the PKK, stemming from its political causes and effects. However, people remain imprisoned, and lives are disrupted.

When the verdicts were announced, Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a Deputy Speaker of Parliament and a member of the DEM Party, was presiding over the parliamentary session. In the Kobani case, the prosecution had sought 38 aggravated prison sentences for him. Önder’s acquittal verdict had not yet been read, as the announcements were made in alphabetical order and it took almost 2 hours for the announcements to be finished. As the verdicts were revealed, DEM Party MPs chanted slogans in support of their colleagues and protested the decisions.

Önder: Dialogue process is criminalized

Önder reacted strongly when Mehmet Ali Çelebi, a former Ergenekon prisoner brought to Parliament by the CHP, with a highly problematic move, and who later switched to the AKP, wagged his finger at him and told him to “know your place.”

Önder was a key figure in the “dialogue process” initiated in 2012 by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following the instructions of Hakan Fidan, then Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), involving PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Imrali prison. Despite health issues and a fear of flying, he frequently traveled between Ankara, Diyarbakır, and Erbil with the state’s approval. The violent events of October 6-8 were only halted when he delivered Öcalan’s message to Diyarbakır with state authorization. Today, if he is still serving in parliament with an aneurysm in his cerebral arteries and a tumor in his pancreas, it is because of those days.

Önder, visibly saddened, stated from the parliamentary rostrum that the Kobani Trial verdict “criminalizes the dialogue process” and implied that it could be seen as an indictment against the AKP in the future if the political climate changes. This statement was recorded in the parliamentary minutes. He then closed the session by sending “greetings to my friends in prison.”

From then to now

When Erdoğan initiated the dialogue process with the PKK in 2012, the Syrian civil war was beginning to affect the region. Ankara hoped this dialogue would enhance both internal and border security. If a middle ground could be found, a buffer zone could be established along the border with the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, preventing the war from spilling into Turkey.

With cooperation from the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, the Free Syrian Army, comprising mostly Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, was received training and armed in Syria.

In response, Bashar al-Assad released al-Qaeda affiliates from prisons to show “the West” what the alternative to his regime would be.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq was already divided, and with this new development, a new actor called ISIS emerged in early 2013 and attracted not only Al-Qaeda but also the Muslim Brotherhood.

Neither Turkey nor other countries fully understood the threat posed by ISIS, viewing it as just another jihadist group.

The Kobani Crisis

Meanwhile, indirect dialogue with the PKK via the HDP and MIT continued. By Nowruz 2013, it seemed an agreement was within reach. At this time, ISIS was still not considered a major threat.

When ISIS stormed the Mosul Consulate General in Iraq and took 49 people hostage, Ankara was caught off guard. In 2014, while MIT was focused on rescuing the hostages, Erdoğan took office as President on August 28, replacing Abdullah Gül.

Simultaneously, ISIS advanced towards Kobani (Ayn El Arab), near the Turkish town of Suruç. The town had fallen to the PYD during the civil war. PYD leader Salih Muslim, who had previously been warmly received in Ankara, requested arms aid from Turkey to defend Kobani against ISIS. Demirtaş also urged Turkey to support the PYD in Kobani.

A Turning Point in US Relations

In September, a new wave of refugees began flowing into Turkey via the Kobani-Suruç route. The ISIS hostages were rescued on September 20 through MIT’s efforts. However, Turkey had until then refrained from joining the US-led coalition against ISIS. The protests of October 6-8 2014 which left 64 dead and 682 injured, erupted in Diyarbakır’s Sur district over tensions related to Kobani.

Demirtaş’s call to “support Sur” was cited in his conviction. These events ended with Öcalan’s message, delivered to Diyarbakır by Sırrı Süreyya Önder, as I have mentioned.

On October 20, US President Barack Obama called President Erdoğan to announce US arms aid to Kobani. Turkey then allowed KDP peshmerga forces to cross its borders to support Kobani.

The situation in Kobani was a major factor in the US decision to support the PKK’s Syrian branch PYD and its armed wing YPG over its NATO ally Turkey in the fight against ISIS.

Murat Yetkin


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