Don’t Forget Çiçek Kobane
A Syrian woman abducted by Turkish-backed rebels has been sentenced to life in a Turkish prison after an illegal and unfair trial.
In October 2019, a video showing Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen threatening an injured and traumatized captive surfaced on social media.
The woman, Çiçek Kobane (Dozgin Temo), was a Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) fighter who had been captured near Ain Issa, Syria. The Turkish-backed fighters filmed themselves calling Kobane a “pig” and shouting “to the slaughter!” as they carried her away.
On March 23rd, 2021, Kobane was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Urfa, Turkey. The court ruled that her status as a Syrian citizen present on Syrian territory while serving as a member of a Syria-based armed force had “violated the unity and integrity of the Turkish state.”
Over the course of the 18 months between the abduction and sentencing, Kobane was tortured and forced to film a confession. Her immediate family, who had lived as refugees in Turkey since 2014, faced so much harassment from the government that they ultimately fled back across the border to Syria.
Her story is an individual tragedy: one young woman’s life destroyed by a violent kidnapping and a legal process that amounted to little more than a show trial. It is also emblematic of broader human rights issues and political challenges central to ongoing conflicts in Turkey and Syria alike.
Despite this, it has received little attention outside of Kurdish media. An outline of the case, along with relevant context on the actors involved, are presented here.
Who were the captors?
The men who captured Kobane and handed her over to Turkish authorities were members of the Syrian National Army (SNA), the armed wing of the opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG). While claiming to be an anti-Assad force, the SNA has primarily fought against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the behest of Turkey.
One of the SNA fighters present when Kobane was detained was quickly identified as Yasser Abdul Rahim, the commander of a faction known as Faylaq al-Majd. Abdul Rahim has participated in Astana negotiations as a representative of the Turkish-backed opposition. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly met with him in 2018.
This immediately illustrated the pervasiveness of criminal behavior within the SNA. The fact that an individual with senior command responsibility was present for the mistreatment and illegal transfer of a detainee made it clear that such abuses were not simply the isolated actions of a few low-level fighters.
It also proved that proximity to Turkish forces was not a moderating influence— a pattern that has also been seen in occupied Afrin, where the groups responsible for the most serious human rights violations are often those with the closest relationships with Turkey.
There is no evidence that any of the SNA fighters implicated in the incident have been prosecuted or faced any other accountability measures, although their actions are contrary to international law.
Timeline of the Trial
Events surrounding Kobane’s trial show a legal case that was profoundly unfair from the beginning.
Individuals accused of anti-state offenses do not generally receive fair trials in Turkey. In its 2021 Freedom in the World report on the country, Freedom House said that “due process and evidentiary standards are particularly weak in cases involving terrorism charges.” Many cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights by Turkish citizens concern the right to a fair trial.
On October 26th, 2019, Turkish state-affiliated broadcaster TRT World published a video labeling Kobane as a “PKK/YPG terrorist.” Kobane appears in the video praising her captors; her lawyer, Hidayet Enmek, said that Kobane was forced to make the statement under duress.
The publication of such material by a state media outlet, a common practice in Turkey, suggests that the verdict against Kobane was politically decided before legal proceedings began. She certainly was not afforded any presumption of innocence— her status as a “terrorist” was determined more than a year before any sentence was handed down.
In March 2020, Kobane’s family was forced to flee Turkey. Kurdish media reported that her father, Salih Temo, and two brothers, Mahmut and Mustafa Temo, had been attacked by police at their workplace and deported to Syria as of March 2nd.
Kobane’s mother reportedly left shortly after. An account of events she gave to the Women Defend Rojava campaign in a July 2020 interview corroborates these claims:
“We received threats and have been humiliated. My husband and two sons were arrested and tortured. They even broke my husband’s fingers…Because of this constant pressure and threat, three months ago we decided to leave Turkey and come to Rojava, where we’re originally from. We haven’t seen our daughter since.”
On March 12th, 2020, Enmek was arrested. He was one of several lawyers accused of “aiding a terrorist organization” for defending political prisoners. Arrests of lawyers working on politicized cases are common in Turkey; Human Rights Watch criticized the phenomenon in a 2019 investigation.
The first hearing in Kobane’s trial took place on June 2nd, 2020, eight months after she was captured in Syria.
The second hearing in the case took place on July 28th, 2020. There, Kobane reportedly stated that she had been shot in the leg after she was captured, and that she had not been provided with necessary medical care to recover.
Kobane’s mother also decried the lack of medical care her daughter received in prison in the Women Defend Rojava interview:
“Her leg is in a really bad state. She can’t move around properly, walk, or change her clothes. She’s really worried about her health. We’ve been struggling to get her medical treatment for her leg but for 6 months, but she still hasn’t received any. She’s unable to be self-sufficient and this is affecting her psychology. The biggest priority is for her leg to be treated.”
A third hearing took place on October 22nd, 2020. Two subsequent hearings took place before Kobane was sentenced.
During the March 23rd hearing, Enmek claimed that he would appeal Kobane’s life sentence, and reiterated that his client should be acquitted because her arrest and transfer to Turkey violated international law.
Allegations of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment
The video that brought Kobane’s case to the attention of the world showed that she was clearly injured — and that the militants who had captured her had little regard for her well-being.
In an article published by Al Monitor in May 2020, Enmek claimed that his client had been subjected to torture and possible sexual violence:
Enmek said the rebels had shot Kobane in the leg and then stomped on her wound before handing her over to Turkish forces. She was taken to a hospital in Sanliurfa where she was treated for seven days before being transferred to Sanlirurfa’s notorious anti-terror police center and interrogated for 10 days. “I found her in a wheelchair there. She was probably subjected to sexual abuse by the rebels but she won’t talk about it,” Enmek said.
These allegations are consistent with patterns of human rights abuses in Turkish-occupied areas of Syria that have been documented by the United Nations, and with accounts from survivors of SNA detention.
A March 2021 report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that:
“As SNA detention practices rapidly evolved, women were increasingly rendered vulnerable to abduction (some for the purposes of forced marriage) and detained at checkpoints or during home and village raids. While detained, Kurdish women and, on occasion, those belonging to the Yazidi minority were also raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence, including degrading and humiliating acts, threats of rape, performance of “virginity tests”, or the dissemination of photographs or video material showing the female detainee being abused.”
A September 2020 report from the Commission cited the rape and torture of detainees as war crimes for which SNA fighters were allegedly responsible. Both reports claimed that Turkish security personnel were aware of these violations.
Testimony from one woman who was abducted from Afrin in 2018 and survived over two years in SNA custody describes patterns of the same abuses.
Illegal Transfers of Syrians to Turkey
Under international humanitarian law, what happened to Çiçek Kobane should not have happened to anyone. But she is far from the only victim of such an ordeal.
Since 2018, dozens of Syrian citizens have been captured by Turkish forces or Turkish-backed SNA groups in Syria, transferred to Turkey, and imprisoned for supposedly violating Turkish law.
According to a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2021, there are about 60 Syrians who have been subjected to this practice. A report from Syrians for Truth and Justice published in July 2020 put the number at nearly 200.
The United Nations has found that “Syrian nationals, including women, who were detained by the Syrian National Army in the Ra’s al-Ayn region were subsequently transferred by Turkish forces to Turkey [and] indicted for crimes that would have been committed in the Ra’s al-Ayn region, on charges including murder or membership of a terrorist organization, under Turkish criminal law.”
In a statement responding to those findings, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said that efforts to ensure accountability for rights violations in areas of Syria under Turkish effective control were “all the more vital given that we have received disturbing reports that some detainees and abductees have allegedly been transferred to Turkey following their detention in Syria by affiliated armed groups.”
In March of this year, the UN reiterated that “Syrian nationals, including women, who were detained by the SNA in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn were subsequently transferred to Turkey. While some have been released or returned to SNA custody in Syria, most of the transferred detainees remain to date in detention facilities in Turkey.”
The UN has not provided numbers of suspected victims.
The practice of transferring detainees from Syria to Turkey has been universally condemned as illegal. The September 2020 UN report found that the transfers “may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation of protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions.
The Human Rights Watch report reiterated that:
“Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power … are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” The prohibition applies irrespective of whether those subject to forcible transfer or deportation are civilians or fighters.”
Some of these individuals, like Kobane, have already been sentenced to life in prison.