Turkey jails Afrin civilians for ‘disrupting the unity and integrity of the Turkish state’

Nine Syrian Kurdish civilians illegally detained in Hatay, Turkey.

On September 18th, 2018, the Hatay Public Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest of nine Syrian Kurds, identified as M.C., A.M., C. M., F.K., H.K., İ.M., M.M.K., İ.M., and R.M., in Rajo district in Afrin. They were taken into custody allegedly in connection with the deaths of two Turkish soldiers, Oguz Kagan Usta and Mehmet Muratdag, who were killed in combat in Afrin on January 23rd, 2018.

The statement said that the accused were taken from Syria to Turkey immediately after their arrest on September 14th, 2018, and were charged with several offenses under domestic Turkish law — including “membership in a terrorist organization” and “disrupting the unity and integrity of the Turkish state.”

On September 26th, 2018, another press release from the prosecutor’s office announced the arrest of two more individuals, identified as R.B.A and R.H.M., on the same charges in connection with the same case.

This month, after several hearings, Kurdish media reported that seven of the accused were sentenced to life in prison for membership in a terror organization and disrupting the unity and integrity of the Turkish state, and that the four others were sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment on the terror charge alone.

This case presents several problems under international law — and is emblematic of how Turkey views the territory that it occupies in Syria.

First, it is extremely unlikely that the individuals in question had anything whatsoever to do with the deaths of any Turkish military personnel. Although the Turkish court alleges that the individuals were combatants, their lawyer, Suphi Zarif, has stated that their ‘confessions’ were prepared statements signed under torture, and that all of the accused were civilians who had simply been targeted by occupying militias and handed over to Turkish forces. One had been arrested for involvement in a traffic accident. Kurdish media noted that the families of the defendants had been threatened, and that they had faced torture for twelve days while held captive in Afrin by Turkish-backed militias.

The overwhelming majority of evidence regarding the treatment of detainees in Turkish-occupied areas of Syria corroborates this. A United Nations Human Rights Council report published in August of this year found that arbitrary detentions and kidnappings are common in occupied Afrin, and that these crimes disproportionally target Kurds. Victims are usually detained on accusations of having supported the YPG and the Autonomous Administration — even when the individuals in question are politically uninvolved civilians. Many are arrested simply so that groups can extort exorbitant ransom payments from their families. The same U.N. report said that such violations amounted to a level such that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of the armed groups in Afrin continued to commit the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture and pillage.”

In light of this information, it is almost certainly the case that these individuals were civilians who were kidnapped by armed groups, tortured, and handed over to Turkish authorities to secure some sort of financial or political benefit for said armed groups. There is little reason to believe that their trial was conducted fairly under international standards.

The Fourth Geneva Convention provides an outline for how civilians accused of violations in an occupied territory should be detained and tried, and what sort of offenses they can be tried for. At stake here would be the question of whether provisions of Turkish domestic law can be applied at all for an offense allegedly committed on the third day of the Turkish invasion of Syrian territory.

Article 64 of the convention states that an occupying power may “subject the population of the occupied territory to provisions which are essential to enable the Occupying Power to fulfill its obligations under the present Convention, to maintain the orderly government of the territory, and to ensure the security of the Occupying Power, of the members and property of the occupying forces or administration, and likewise of the establishments and lines of communication used by them.”

Article 65 states that “the penal provisions enacted by the Occupying Power shall not come into force before they have been published and brought to the knowledge of the inhabitants in their own language. The effect of these penal provisions shall not be retroactive.”

On January 23rd, 2018, the day the alleged offense that the Afrin residents were tried for took place, Turkey and its allied forces were actively contesting slivers of Syrian territory around the edges of Afrin. The invasion had begun just three days earlier. Turkey could hardly be considered an occupying power at that point— and had certainly not published and publicized any new laws applicable to the people of Afrin. Thus, the application of any of these laws to Syrian citizens on Syrian territory would be retroactive— and therefore prohibited. Furthermore, “disrupting the unity and integrity of the Turkish state”— the charge that led to the life sentences— could not by any reasonable standard be considered a provision “essential” for Turkish forces in occupied Syrian territory under the conditions established in Article 64. It is impossible for an action committed entirely outside of Turkish territory to threaten the unity and integrity of the Turkish state, and absurd to say it could do so.

For all of these reasons, the offenses that these individuals were accused and convicted of should not have been applicable to them in the first place.

The fact that the individuals were taken to Hatay to be tried and jailed is another breach of the laws of war. Article 76 of the convention states that accused civilians “shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.” It is likely that this was done for the broader domestic political reasons that spurred the operation itself — rather than any pressing security need to remove these civilians from Afrin.

The Geneva Conventions also enshrine the right to a fair trial— another protection not afforded to these Afrin residents. Common Article 3 prohibits, as a minimum standard, “the passing of sentences…without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Were these “indispensable” guarantees applied in this case? Publicly available information on the Turkish judiciary suggests that there is no guarantee of the basic principles of a free and fair trial— especially for Kurds. Turkey uses terror prosecutions against its own citizens as a systematic tactic of political repression. Terror trials in Turkey are virtually always more related to political concerns than the merits of any given legal case. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 50,000 people — about one-fifth of Turkey’s entire prison population — have been accused or convicted of terror offenses. The same report noted that many of these cases “lack compelling evidence of criminal activity or acts that would reasonably be deemed terrorism.” A report from the Council of Europe found in 2019 that “the existing tendency of the Turkish judiciary to put the protection of the state above that of human rights [has been] significantly reinforced, and the criminal process appears to often be reduced to a mere formality, especially in terrorism-related cases.”

In this specific case, lawyers for the accused said that the court had reached a decision in advance, before hearing all the facts, and that the judges had dismissed their defenses. According to Mesopotamia Agency, the forced confessions contained contradictory information about crucial details of the alleged incident. The torture inflicted on the accused, a war crime in and of itself, casts doubt on the “evidence” they offered. This could not have been a fair trial according to basic human rights standards.

With Turkey now occupying even more Syrian territory, and with new reports of human rights abuses coming out of occupied areas every day, it is important to understand the tactics that the Turkish state uses to threaten and intimidate the population of occupied areas. While Turkish officials claim that they are not targeting the Kurdish people as a whole, this case— where all basic principles of justice are disregarded so that Kurds living in Syria can be accused of threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Turkey— is one of many incidents that proves otherwise.

News and analysis on Northeast Syria.