THE PROTEST works! Turkish political prisoner Cihan Erdal has been released on bail following a massive global campaign.
It was led by the UK-based trade union solidarity movement, Labor Start, with the support of over thirty international organizations and over 2,500 academics.
Erdal’s release is conditional, with him subject to strict conditions. He must stay in Turkey and report to the local police station twice a week.
And he still faces false charges, alongside 107 co-defendants, in one of Turkey’s largest mass trials, the final stage of which resumes on October 18. Nineteen of his colleagues are still in pre-trial detention.
Until his release on bail, Erdal was one of thousands of political prisoners in Turkey. Many have been held in appalling detention conditions. They include social activists, opposition supporters, Kurds, academics, lawyers, journalists, students, civil servants and the military.
Like many others, Erdal, who is a permanent resident academic in Canada, is on trial for crimes he did not commit. A trade union, pacifist and LGBTI + activist, he was targeted by the Turkish regime because, seven years ago, he was a leading figure in the left-wing pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, and a member of its central executive committee.
HDP is Turkey’s third party. It was, and still is, a legal party but opposes many of the policies of the increasingly autocratic Turkish government. Among Erdal’s co-defendants are former HDP co-spokespersons Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.
Erdal’s arrest last year was part of a large-scale roundup of HDP supporters. According to the government, the HDP instigated a deadly insurgency in October 2014, when it urged thousands to take to the streets of southeastern Turkey to protest Ankara’s failure to protect the Kurds Syrians against Isis.
Prosecutors have indicted a total of 108 defendants and are seeking multiple life sentences and thousands of years in prison without parole. They claim that the call for protests has resulted in public unrest, large-scale violent incidents, killings and terrorist attacks.
Typical of the fragile case against the defendants, the authorities allege that Erdal “knowingly and deliberately contributed to the commission of illegal acts that occurred between October 6 and 8, 2014”.
However, the indictment lists only two pieces of evidence against him: two Facebook posts.
It was a replay of a statement by Demirtas expressing HDP support for the Kurds in Kobane and a replay of an article about the murder of a young man by state security forces during of their repression of demonstrations of solidarity in Kobane.
Many people believe he is on trial simply because in 2014 he was the head of the HDP, which the Turkish state is seeking to crush.
In addition to the vague catch-all of “disturbing the unity and territorial integrity of the state”, the 108 defendants face 37 charges of “homicide”, although most of the dead were killed by the police, far-right nationalists and other unknown people.
HDP leaders have made clear their opposition to violence, but their proclamations to this effect have been rejected.
The remaining counts include 29 attempted murder counts and 3,777 counts of property damage. If found guilty, the accused could collectively face a total of 1,625,000 years in prison.
The charges are cited to justify the prohibition of HDP. Last month, the Constitutional Court ordered the HDP to stand trial, calling for the party to be shut down and for 451 HDP members to be banned from political activity for five years.
What is at stake in the upcoming trial is not only the fate of Erdal and his co-defendants, but the survival of the HDP and Turkish democracy itself.