Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). File photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Selahattin Demirtas’ trial on terror charges began on Thursday under heavy police presence. Crowds of protesters and international observers stood outside in the cold after being barred from the courtroom where the defendant himself did not appear.
Co-chair of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party HDP, Demirtas has spent 399 days in pre-trial detention on 31 terror-related charges.
“The main accusation is that he is the leader of an armed organization, which is a terror offence,” his lawyer Yusuf Alatas told Hurriyet Daily News. “All of the proceedings subjected to this case are about Demirtas’ speeches that he delivered as a politician. None of them contain any call for violence or an act of violence.”
If convicted, he faces up to 142 years in prison.
Demirtas, 44, whose impassioned oratory had him compared to Barack Obama, did not appear in court himself. He refused to appear by video-link after authorities made the decision to not bring him to court in person, citing security concerns. He is being held in high security Edirne prison.
His arrest and charges, coming amid Turkey’s post-coup crackdown on civil society, have drawn condemnation from rights monitors and activists.
“The evidence against Selahattin Demirtas consists largely of his political speeches and lacks any compelling evidence of criminal activity,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to conclude otherwise than that the case against him is the Turkish government’s politically motivated attempt to undermine the parliamentary opposition.”
Ankara accuses HDP of having ties to the PKK, a named terrorist organization. In May 2016, the parliament voted to lift immunity from a select group of lawmakers, including many HDP members.
The indictment against Demirtas alleges that he is a leading member of the PKK and accuses him of inciting people to violence.
One piece of evidence being used against Demirtas is a statement from HDP on October 6, 2014 calling for people to protest the Turkish government’s stance on the ISIS assault on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The HDP statement did not call for violence, but up to 50 were killed in protests.
“While the authorities have a duty to investigate the deaths and any criminal activities that occurred, there is no evidence that the violence was the result of the HDP call for protest or that the party could reasonably have been expected to foresee the violent events that would unfold,” Human Rights Watch stated.
A European delegation of observers was barred from entering the courtroom, just as they had been denied entry to a court hearing of Figen Yuksekdag
, another HDP leader, a day earlier.
“Political show case trials… still trying to get in, still barred!” tweeted Unmesh Desai, a Labour London Assembly member.
“Turkey – a parody of rule of law,” tweeted Jonas Sjostedt, chairperson of Sweden’s Left Party.
The international observers and supporters were met with “riot police and water cannons,” Arturo Scotto of Italy’s Democratic and Progressive Movement stated on Twitter.
The hundreds of supporters were chanting “oppression will not intimidate us,” AFP reported.
The prosecutor demanded Demirtas’ continued detention, saying there is a “strong suspicion that he committed the crime of leading a terrorist organization and the nature of this crime necessitates his imprisonment throughout the trial,” according to Hurriyet Daily News.
He will remain in prison until his next hearing on February 14.