The recognition and respect for Abdullah Öcalan as a Kurdish leader by millions is a political matter, not a judicial one, argued Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in his defence on Monday, challenging the Turkish legal system’s stance on Kurdish identity and political expression.
“Whether someone [Abdullah Öcalan] is accepted as a leader by the people is a matter of political criticism and discussion, not a judicial issue. I am not the only one; millions of people have declared Öcalan a leader of the people,” Demirtaş argued during his ongoing defence statement in Turkey’s high-profile Kobani trial.
Demirtaş also underlined the suppressed nature of the political debates on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. He articulated the Kurdish perspective, saying, “Kurdistan has been banned, that is why we talk about it. If you hadn’t banned it, we wouldn’t need to discuss it.”
Demirtaş, facing charges related to his political speeches and actions, excoriated the judicial system for criminalising expressions of Kurdish identity. “In the indictments against us, we are criticised for our political thoughts, our political criticisms and our views. How are we supposed to have praised criminals? How are we supposed to have propagated violence?” he asked.
The trial, held at the Ankara Severe Penalty Court No.22 on Sincan Prison premises, has garnered attention for its implications on free speech and minority rights in Turkey. “To refer to Abdullah Öcalan as ‘Esteemed Kurdish People’s Leader’ – how does that become praising a criminal? Let’s discuss this,” Demirtaş continued in a challenge to the legal interpretation of his statements.
Highlighting the inconsistencies in the legal system, Demirtaş said, “Everyone should decide whom they call ‘esteemed’.” He then asked whether it was it a crime to call Kenan Evren (a former president of Turkey, but also the leader of the 1980 military coup to suppress left-wing and Kurdish unrest) ‘esteemed’? And he pointed out that schools have even been named after Esat Oktay Yıldıran, honoured as an army major, but also notorious as a torturer.
He further emphasised the need for a judicial re-evaluation, “If the prosecutor is going to discuss whether Öcalan is a leader of the Kurdish people, then expert reports need to be sought.” Demirtaş’s stance reflects a broader call for recognition and respect for Kurdish identity within the Turkish legal framework.
The trial, which has seen numerous political figures and human rights advocates in attendance, continues to be a focal point for discussions on the intersection of law, politics and ethnic identity in Turkey. “Öcalan is struggling for peace; I have witnessed this. He cares more about this country’s future than many nationalists and [Turkish] racists,” Demirtaş concluded.