Pro-Kurdish opposition leader’s trial opens in Turkey

A supporter holds a mask of Selahattin Demirtas, detained leader of Turkey's Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party  during a rally in Istanbul
A supporter holds a mask of Selahattin Demirtas, detained leader of Turkey's Pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

December 7, 2017

By Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The jailed leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition was remanded in prison for at least two more months on Thursday at the opening of his trial on terrorism-related charges.

Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has already been in detention more than a year, was not allowed to appear in court for security reasons and refused to take part via video link.

The former human rights lawyer faces up to 142 years in prison in a case closely watched by rights groups and Western governments. The judge ruled he should be kept in detention until the next hearing on Feb 14.

“This trial bears all the hallmarks of a theater play. It’s clear that this case was brought on orders. We demand an immediate end to this injustice,” HDP quoted one of Demirtas’ lawyers as telling the court.

The court ruled that Demirtas be kept in jail, in line with the prosecutor’s demand.

Demirtas was arrested on Nov. 4 last year, one of more than a dozen HDP lawmakers who were detained in a crackdown following last year’s attempted coup.

A crowd of several hundred gathered to show support for Demirtas in snowy weather outside the court near the capital Ankara. They joined hands and danced around small fires, singing songs in Kurdish. “Demirtas is our honor,” they chanted.

Demirtas and other detained HDP members are mostly accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has conducted a decades-old insurgency in which 40,000 people have been killed. The group is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, Turkey and Europe. All of the accused deny the charges.

The HDP is the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament. The party’s other co-leader, Figen Yuksekdag, also jailed pending trial on terrorism charges, was remanded in custody by an Ankara court on Wednesday.

PROTESTS BANNED

Demirtas is held in a jail in the northwestern city of Edirne. The case was to be held within the city of Ankara itself but was moved to the Sincan prison complex outside the capital, two days before the trial, because of security concerns.

European parliamentarians, Western diplomats and rights group representatives attended the session in the small court room with a capacity of 120 people. The HDP said 1,250 lawyers sought to defend Demirtas.

The HDP said in a statement the indictment largely consists of press releases and speeches Demirtas has made at conferences, panels and similar legal and political activities.

The charges aimed at Demirtas included “establishing a terrorist organization”, “spreading terror group propaganda” and “praising crimes and criminals”.

Authorities banned protests across Ankara province for the three days until Friday for security reasons after the HDP called for protests to mark the hearing of Demirtas and other party officials, the governor’s office said in a statement.

About 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended and roughly 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial since last year’s failed coup. Rights groups and some Western allies say Erdogan has used the putsch as an excuse to quash dissent. The HDP says as many as 5,000 of its members have been detained.

Erdogan says such measures were necessary given the danger represented by the putsch in which 250 people were killed.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and Andrew Heavens)