North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Selahattin Demirtaş: the trial of the man who wanted to be Turkey’s president

After more than four years of being held in a pre-trial detention that the ECHR ruled ‘unlawful’, Demirtaş is due to have his next trial hearing tomorrow

Maureen Freely
5 May 2021, 12.00am
HDP badges of Selahattin Demirtaş’s face are seen displayed at the party’s 2015 election campaign launch
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SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For more than four years, Selahattin Demirtaş, the writer and former co-chair of Turkey’s People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who in 2014 and 2018 ran in the country’s presidential elections, has been held in pre-trial detention on multiple terror-related charges. In December last year, the European Court of Human Rights found his detention to be unlawful and ordered his release. On 6 May, he will face his next hearing.

Many would remember Demirtaş from 2014, when he ran for the presidency. His slogan: “Imagine a president who does not practice discrimination, who works instead for unity and peace.” No one, including himself, could imagine him winning.

The contest was heavily tilted in favour of the then-prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The main opposition parties joined forces to back a compromise candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. This left little room for Demirtaş, a Kurd who seemed blind to the nation’s most fiercely guarded red line: daring to speak not just for his own people but for all of Turkey’s beleaguered minorities.

Yet he won 9.76% of the vote, marking himself as a serious and credible contender with gains that were unprecedented in such an election for someone who explicitly identified as a Kurd. His campaign drew support not just from the predominantly Kurdish south-east, but from younger urban voters across the country, who warmed to the party’s embrace of cultural and political diversity, its call for peaceful reconciliation, and its strong commitment to gender equity.

Following this, Demirtaş and HDP’s co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ led their fledgling party into the 2015 general election with a campaign that garnered 13.12% of the vote, and 80 of 550 seats in the National Assembly, making it Turkey’s second largest opposition party.

But not for long. Demirtaş was arrested in November 2016, along with Yüksekdağ and ten other HDP deputies.

Four and a half years later, Demirtaş is still being held in pre-trial detention, in a prison more than 1,500km away from his home and loved ones. He is charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation, spreading terrorist propaganda, praising crimes and criminals and inciting violence.

Most of the evidence against him is drawn from political speeches and press statements and lacks any compelling evidence of criminal activity. If convicted, he faces a combined total of 142 years in prison.

A crackdown on freedom

On 7 January 2021, a Turkish penal court approved a second indictment against Demirtaş, as part of a probe into several deadly 2014 terror incidents. This indictment calls for life without parole. The first hearing in this case, which involves 107 other defendants, including HDP members and officials, took place on 26 April.

In the meantime, Turkish courts have so far failed to implement a December 2020 ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, which found Demirtaş’s detention to be politically motivated and ordered his immediate release.

In March 2021, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers urged Turkey to implement the Court’s rulings, which are legally binding, and to release Demirtaş forthwith. This plea, too, has gone unheard.

On 17 March 2021, the chief public prosecutor of Turkey’s Court of Cassation filed a case before the Constitutional Court, demanding that HDP be dissolved and that 687 party members – including Demirtaş – be banned from engaging in politics for five years.

The European Union was among those condemning the move, stating that it ‘would violate the rights of millions of voters in Turkey’. The authorities continue to forcibly replace elected HDP local officials in the south-east of Turkey, thus depriving voters of their elected representatives in parliament and local government.

The cases against Demirtaş, scores of HDP officials, and the HDP itself are emblematic of the harassment, threats and persecution that critical voices in Turkey now face in growing numbers, particularly since the coup attempt of July 2016 and the subsequent breakdown of the rule of law.

According to Expression Interrupted, a website tracking press freedom in Turkey, at least 68 journalists and media workers are currently in pre-trial detention in the country. Kurdish culture and language continue to be harshly repressed across the board. Most pro-Kurdish and Kurdish language media outlets have been shut down, and dozens of journalists of Kurdish or pro-Kurdish outlets are in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges.

Alongside this, the erosion of wider human rights in Turkey continues apace. Women’s rights are under assault. Despite much recent social media outrage around the nation’s high femicide rate, earlier this year Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention (a legal framework to protect victims of gender-based violence and prosecute offenders), without consultation, and by decree.

Erdoğan’s ever louder homophobic vitriol puts the already endangered LGBTIQ community at ever greater risk. Turkey’s more progressive universities have also become objects of his wrath. After riot police shut down peaceful protests at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University last January, going on to do the same at eight other universities, more than 500 students and academics were arrested. Erdoğan has branded them terrorists.

Pressure needed

Behind Erdoğan’s rhetoric is a justice system that just occasionally bends to outside pressure. The recent release of novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan can be counted as one such victory. Since Altan’s arrest on farcical charges in 2016, scores of centres of PEN, the international association of writers, across the world have been campaigning on his behalf, sending appeals to the Turkish authorities and observers to trial hearings, taking part in solidarity actions, and promoting his writing.

On 14 April this year, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to free him at once and pay him €16,000 in damages for violating his right to liberty and security and his freedom of expression, having found no evidence of his involvement in a plan to overthrow the government. The following day, Altan was released, though it is unclear whether he received any damages. He would be the first to remind us of those still behind bars.

It is in this spirit that we ask you to also remember Nedim Türfent, the poet, journalist, and honorary English PEN member who is serving an almost nine-year prison sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which 19 witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him.

We also ask you to remember Osman Kavala, the publisher and philanthropist who has devoted his life to the peaceful promotion of civil and cultural rights, most notably in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. First detained in October 2017, he was initially charged with being the driving force behind the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Though eventually acquitted, Kavala remains in detention on a new charge of threatening the constitutional order. This carries a life sentence, with an additional 20-year sentence for espionage.

We hope you will join us in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Selahattin Demirtaş, Nedim Türfent, Osman Kavala and all others who are currently detained in Turkey for peacefully expressing their views. We do so today in the name of Selahattin Demirtaş, who once imagined himself a president steering Turkey towards peace and unity, and who is due to have his trial hearing tomorrow.

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