A Turkish court on Thursday decided to detain Prokurde leader Selahattin Demirtas, fierce opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the first day of his trial for “terrorist” activities that worried human rights defenders.
Demirtas, 44, was arrested with a dozen other deputies of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) on 4 November 2016, while the purges launched after the failed coup of July 2016 extended to pro-Kurdish circles. .
The HDP co-chair, accused of leading a “terrorist organization,” “terrorist propaganda,” and “incitement to commit crimes,” faces up to 142 years in prison.
The first trial hearing was held in the Sincan prison complex near Ankara. Mr. Demirtas was not present, as the court ordered him to appear by videoconference from his Edirne prison in the northwest, but he refused to comply, according to the judge.
Demirtas’ lawyers challenged the charges against their client in court, claiming that he had only engaged in legal political activities, according to an AFP correspondent in the courtroom.
They called for the discontinuation of the prosecution and the release of Mr. Demirtas, but the court rejected the request and ordered his continued detention.
The next hearing is scheduled for 14 February.
The Turkish authorities accuse the HDP of being the political showcase of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a “terrorist” organization by Ankara and its Western allies.
But the party has consistently rejected the allegations and claims to be targeted for political reasons because of its vocal opposition to President Erdogan.
Several hundred people gathered in court to show their support for Mr. Demirtas. “The only crime of Demirtas is to have been the opponent of Erdogan,” said a protester.
In addition to the lawyers, a hundred people attended the hearing at which representatives of foreign missions were not allowed to access, according to a diplomatic source.
Nine HDP deputies are currently in prison, according to party figures. Five of his 59 deputies elected in November 2015 were also stripped of their mandate, including co-president Figen Yüksekdag, who is also incarcerated.
The arrest of the HDP deputies was made possible by the lifting in May 2016 of the parliamentary immunity of MPs prosecuted, a measure widely criticized by the HDP who saw a government maneuver to oust him .
– ‘Sabotage the opposition’ –
In light of these elements, it is “difficult not to conclude that the lawsuit against (Demirtas) is nothing other than a politically motivated initiative of the Turkish government to sabotage the parliamentary opposition,” said Hugh Williamson, from Human Rights Watch.
The trial that opened Thursday covers 31 cases merged by the judicial authorities. It was in this trial that Mr. Demirtas was placed in pre-trial detention almost 400 days ago.
Since his arrest, Mr. Demirtas, against whom a hundred legal proceedings have been initiated, has never been able to appear before a court.
The HDP denounced in November a letter allegedly sent by the Ministry of Justice to all the courts currently prosecuting Mr Demirtas, calling on them not to allow him to physically appear before them.
Meanwhile, unidentified individuals stormed the office of one of Demirtas’ lawyers on Sunday and stole a computer containing the defense he had prepared for Thursday, the defense said.
With Mr Demirtas in prison, the HDP loses its main asset as the country prepares for important municipal, legislative and presidential elections in 2019: this trained lawyer, sometimes dubbed the “Kurdish Obama”, has transformed the left in a modern and progressive left-wing formation, attractive far beyond the Kurdish electorate.
The HDP had created the surprise in the legislative elections of June 2015, taking 80 seats and thus depriving the Justice and Development Party (AKP, in power) of the absolute majority. But in new elections convened in November of the same year, the HDP had lost 21 deputies.