On April 24, 2017, Serdar Kuni, a 45-year-old Kurdish doctor accused of providing medical aid to Kurdish rebels, stood in a courtroom in Sirnak in southeastern Turkey. The courtroom overlooked buildings reduced to rubble and a deserted mosque with broken windows. Police posts, circled with barbed wire fences, had sprung up every few hundred yards. A Turkish flag flew on a hill above the town, staking out its territory after more than a year of intense fighting with Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy from Turkish rule. An estimated 50,000 of Sirnak’s 65,000 residents were yet to return home after having been displaced by the fighting.
The prosecutor sat with the three judges. The chances of a fair trial seemed slim, given that the debris of battle in the mostly Kurdish region was ubiquitous and the state of emergency after the July 2016 coup continued to be in effect.
The fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels renewed in the summer of 2015 after peace talks between the Kurds and the Turkish state broke down. Young Kurdish militants from the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., inspired by the success of Kobani and Rojava cantons in Syria, built barricades in towns and cities across southeastern Turkey and created de facto liberated zones.
Turkish forces laid siege to rebel towns and imposed long military curfews, and their tanks shelled the towns without restraint. In the subsequent months numerous neighborhoods in Kurdish cities and towns like Diyarbakir, Cizre, Sirnak, Silopi, Nusaybin and Yuksekova were reduced to rubble in the fighting. The International Crisis Group estimated that at least 2,721 people were killed by April 25, 2017, including 393 civilians, 927 members of security forces, 1,257 P.K.K. militants and “219 youths of unknown affiliation.”
The Kurdish militants had retreated into the mountains by June 2016. Soon after, Turkey had to live through the failed July 2016 coup, which killed more than 250 people and injured many more. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the Pennsylvania-based Islamist cleric Fetullah Gulen and his followers in the Turkish military for the coup. A wide-ranging purge of suspected Gulenists followed.
Although the Kurds and Gulenists have traditionally had a hostile relationship, Mr. Erdogan’s government extended the purge and prosecution to Kurds as well as liberal Turks, who were critical of the military operations in Kurdish areas. In January 2016, more than 2,000 academics in Turkey signed a petition calling for the resumption of peace talks with the P.K.K. Turkish authorities jailed three signatories and fired or suspended 60 others from their university jobs.
In August 2016, a Turkish court in Istanbul ordered Ozgur Gundem, one of Turkey’s most prominent pro-Kurdish newspapers, to close its operations for “continuously conducting propaganda” for the P.K.K. The newspaper’s staff, as well as academics and intellectuals who volunteered to write for the newspaper, was arrested and charged with “creating propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Those arrested included Dr. Kuni’s colleague and president of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnem Korur Fincanci, who could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted.
As the state of emergency continues, Kurdish professionals affiliated with labor unions, human rights organizations and the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., live with the constant fear of police knocking on their doors. More than 5,000 members of the H.D.P. have been arrested. Like Dr. Kuni, these Kurdish men and women — politicians, activists, professionals — are being tried on vaguely defined charges of terrorism by Turkish courts.
In late September 2016, Turkish police arrived at Dr. Kuni’s home in Cizre. He was not home, but on learning that the police were looking for him, he went to the prosecutor’s office in Cizre. “I was thinking, all I have done is treat people and help them survive difficult times,” Dr. Kuni told me. The prosecutor accused him of being a member of a terrorist organization. Dr. Kuni spent the next six months in prison, waiting for his trial.
Dr. Kuni is a member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, an old, respected rights group. For 79 days, from Dec. 14, 2015, to March 2, 2016, Turkish security forces locked down Cizre to push out the militants controlling the city. Reports indicate that in early February 2016, Turkish security forces surrounded three buildings in the Cudi and Sur neighborhoods in Cizre and killed between 130 and 190 people sheltering in the buildings’ basements, including unarmed civilians. Dr. Kuni had assisted the Human Rights Foundation with some of the first human rights reports to emerge from Cizre after the curfews, including the deaths of the people in Cizre’s basements, which had yet to be investigated.
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Increased hostility toward Kurds in the aftermath of the fighting and the purge in the judiciary after the coup have had a terrible effect on the already shaky process of justice in the country. Kurdish lawyers are struggling with getting prosecutors to investigate killings of civilians during the fighting by Turkish security forces. Families of victims are withdrawing complaints because of the fear of retribution from the police and the prosecutors.
In June 2016, Turkey’s Parliament passed a new law providing immunity from prosecution for members of Turkey’s security forces involved in counterterrorism operations. The law requires prosecutors to obtain permission from “political or military leadership” and expands jurisdiction of military tribunals to handle criminal cases concerning service members. It is one of the factors that has effectively rendered the criminal justice process in southeastern Turkey defunct.
Sitting through Dr. Kuni’s trial was a vivid illustration of that. The prosecutor read from his notes: “There is an anonymous witness who says the suspect has been working as a physician in the district of Cizre,” he said, “at a public health clinic operated by the municipality. Protesters in the street went to this center instead of state-run public health centers. He has treated people injured in illegal incidents.”
Dr. Kuni’s attorney argued that the testimony of an anonymous witness could not be accepted without his appearance in court and without any opportunity for cross-examination. The witness did not name Dr. Kuni or identify him from a photograph. “I have been a practicing physician in Cizre for 12 years,” Dr. Kuni told the court. “I have no connection with armed groups. I have always simply practiced my profession and given medical help to those who needed it.”
After two hours of arguments, the three-judge bench convicted Dr. Kuni and sentenced him to four years in prison. In a surprising twist, the judges decided to release him until his defense lawyers could file an appeal of his conviction in a higher court. His lawyers interpreted it as a sign that the judges did not believe the charges against Dr. Kuni but did not want to risk their jobs by acquitting someone accused of terrorism. The courtroom burst into applause and cheers.
Christine Mehta is a researcher with Physicians for Human Rights in New York.