The age-old dilemma of protecting rights while allowing pursuit of other national purposes colors states' aspirations to be respectful of cultural differences while also protecting public safety in the era of concern about terrorism-related activities. Turkey and the status of the Kurds within Turkey provides an important case study of how states have addressed the protection of rights while pursuing legal processes concerning activities the state is concerned may be precursors to terrorist activity. In pursuit of its desire to join the European Union, Turkey implemented a series of reforms that allowed Kurds to exercise some of their formerly prohibited cultural rights. As cultural reforms have been undertaken, the state has simultaneously instituted strenuous new legal measures that have expanded the scope of prosecutable acts of terrorism.

This research will provide the first empirical data on anti-terror trials in Turkey and contribute to the newly emerging scholarship on law and global war on terror. This research will inquire into the portrayal of an antagonist relation between rights and security. The international importance of concerns both for cultures and for public safety make this project important to broad communities.

Project Report

This research aimed to understand how politics and law are tied to each other in a setting where people are very politicized due to the four-decades-long war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerrilla fighters. While politics offers a vague definition of terrorism, the Turkish judiciary tries to stabilize this definition as it adjudicates specific cases with the charges of terrorism. One of the major legal cases through which terrorism as a criminal category holds currency is that prosecuting the Kurdish population for being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is labeled as a terrorist organization in Turkey. Focusing on the most recent terrorism trial, which has been held since 2009 in the city of Diyarbakir where thousands of suspects were brought before the court, this research examined the ways in which the prosecutor frames the "security threat" that terrorism suspects pose, how the judges assess the suspects’ potential to threaten state security, and the evidence and testimonies deployed by suspects to contest the accusations. Over eighteen months, I attended courtroom hearings in which the generally monotonous procedural tone was interrupted by collective courtroom protests and contentious political defense statements. While collecting legal documents pertinent to the trial, I interviewed the judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers to understand what legal codes and procedures were at play in the courtroom. When suspects of the trial were released on bail in April 2014, after 5 years of imprisonment, I conducted interviews with 40 individuals from different backgrounds, including civil servants, local governors, lawyers, civil society activists and former guerilla fighters. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, my dissertation thus provides novel data on courtroom hearings to examine the interplay of political and legal process in the prosecution of terrorism suspects. This trial offers a particularly interesting ethnographic site to explore how politics destabilize ordinary legal technologies for three main reasons. First, it takes place in the context of an ongoing peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK that destabilizes what "terrorism" means; second, those charged with terrorism are accused of threatening state sovereignty even in the absence of "spectacular" acts of violence committed by the accused; and, third, the sheer scale of the trial transformed the workload of the courts to such an extent that trying terrorism cases has become an everyday legal practice for the Turkish judiciary. Terrorism trials are generally associated with "exception" or "extraordinariness" either for suspending rights and freedoms or for being predicated upon special criminal laws. There is a long-standing literature in political theory examining how law is suspended in times of war or in the state of exception (Agamben 2005; Arendt 1976; Benjamin 1978; Schmitt 2008). Drawing upon this strain of political theory on war, more recent work in law, anthropology and political science examines the increasing palpability of the concept of "terrorism" in the post-9/11 world where the "war on terror" entails a state of exception (Asad 2007; Belkowitz 2005; Butler 2004; Eckertt 2008; Hirsch 2006; Jackson 2005; Mamdani 2005; Paust 2004; Sarat, Douglas & Merill 2005; Steyn 2004; Zulaika 2009). Since most terrorism trials are not publicly accessible or "open," scholarship has hitherto analyzed state discourses or media coverage to argue that the special laws enforced by executive bodies enable courts to suspend the rule of law and inflict multiple forms of violence on terrorism suspects. Rather than attributing "extraordinary" status to the Turkish terrorism trials, my research sheds light on how terrorism trials are situated within the ordinary legal world and explores how the courts’ use of legal technologies and procedures is turned upside down at certain moments by the accused, as they reclaim politics in the genres of protest and defense.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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jonathan gould
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Johns Hopkins University
United States
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