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Turkey pro-Kurdish leader goes on trial over 'terror' links

Heavy security was present outside the complex [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 December, 2017

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Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), was first detained in November last year in a crackdown under the state of emergency that followed the 2016 failed coup.
The co-leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party went on trial in Ankara on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels, after more than a year behind bars in a case supporters say is politically motivated, reports said on Thursday.

Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), was first detained in November last year in a crackdown under the state of emergency that followed the 2016 failed coup.

Before his arrest Demirtas was considered one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's major rivals, a silky orator who has succeeded in bringing his party from the fringe into the political mainstream.

Demirtas, 44, is charged with "managing a terror organisation", "making propaganda for a terror group" and "inciting criminal acts" among other accusations. 

He faces up to 142 years in prison if convicted.

His trial got under way at the Sincan prison complex in Ankara province, a HDP official told AFP, adding that Demirtas was not present.

The MP is being held in prison in the northwestern region of Edirne. The party has previously accused the justice ministry of preventing any court appearances by Demirtas.

Hundreds of supporters turned up outside the complex where security was heavy, chanting "oppression will not intimidate us" and "Selahattin Demirtas is our honour", an AFP correspondent said.

Nine MPs in prison

A dozen HDP MPs were detained at the same time as Demirtas, including former co-chair Figen Yuksekdag who was stripped of her MP status in February and stepped down as co-leader in May.

Nine HDP MPs are still in prison, including Demirtas and Yuksekdag.

Under Demirtas' leadership, the HDP took seats in the Turkish parliament as the second biggest opposition party, winning support from liberal and left-wing Turks beyond its Kurdish base.

But the government accuses the party of being a political front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group blacklisted by Turkey and its Western allies.

Analysts say Demirtas never succeeded in fully distancing his party from the PKK, though the HDP denies the claims. 

It has rubbished Ankara's accusations against its co-leader, saying Demirtas' 501-page indictment was mostly made up of press releases, speeches, panels and similar legal and political activities.

Demirtas is ensnared in nearly 100 legal cases, but this is the most serious and the one for which he has been held in prison for almost 400 days.

'Political reasons'

The party claimed the accusations were "prepared for political reasons, not legal ones" because they date back to events between 2011 and 2013 but the HDP says the case was only prepared early last year.

"It's hard to conclude otherwise than that the case against him is the government's politically motivated attempt to undermine the parliamentary opposition," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Further infuriating the HDP, the computer which contained Demirtas' defence was stolen in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.

Renowned US intellectual and linguist Noam Chomsky was among authors and politicians who signed a petition this week calling for Demirtas and Yuksekdag to be released.

While in custody, former human rights lawyer Demirtas has written poetry, produced artwork, tweeted through a third party and even written a selection of short stories entitled "Seher" ("Dawn" in Turkish).

Publisher Dipnot said it had printed 155,000 copies and that the book was now in its 15th print run.

HDP hard hit 

After June 2015 election which the HDP hailed as a triumph, the two-year ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state fell apart and intense fighting resumed. 

More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its insurgency against Turkey in 1984.

But less than a year after the 2015 poll, parliament voted to lift MPs' immunity from prosecution, paving the way for the arrest of HDP lawmakers.

Since the government imposed a state of emergency after the July 2016 failed coup, tens of thousands of people have been arrested over alleged links to the putsch. Government critics and Kurdish activists have also been targeted.

The HDP has been hit hard with 11,500 officials, members and party sympathisers detained since the end of the ceasefire, while 4,537 have been formally arrested.

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