The prolonged pretrial detention of the leader of a parliamentary opposition party in Turkey challenges basic democratic principles and is part of a wider pattern of repression against government critics, Human Rights Watch said.
The trial of Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is scheduled to begin in the Sincan prison campus courthouse in Ankara on December 7, 2017, 11 months after he was indicted. Demirtaş has been in pretrial detention since November 2016. The HDP, known as a pro-Kurdish party, is the second-largest opposition party in the parliament.
“Holding the leader of a major opposition party in pretrial detention for over a year on flimsy charges is another example of the political abuse of the criminal justice system we are repeatedly seeing in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Keeping Demirtaş in jail for months on end not only denies his right to political association, participation, and freedom of expression, but it disenfranchises those who voted for him and his party.”
The 500-page indictment against Demirtaş accuses him of being a leading member of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK/KCK), of spreading terrorist propaganda, and of praising crimes and criminals. It accuses him of inciting enmity among the population and inciting the population not to obey laws and to commit crimes, and of organizing, participating in, and provoking unauthorized demonstrations. The charges came eight months after a May 2016 decision to strip him and other members of parliament from his party of their immunity from prosecution. If convicted, he could face a 142-year prison sentence.
The evidence cited against Demirtaş relies heavily on his speeches. In addition, many pages of transcripts of wiretapped calls and intercepted conversations are used as evidence to suggest Demirtaş’s association with a nongovernmental group in Diyarbakır, in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish region, called the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). The prosecutor alleges that the group is part of the PKK/KCK, though none of the information seems to point to anything approaching criminal activity.
The evidence also includes a public statement by the HDP on October 6, 2014, calling for protests against the Turkish government’s approach to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) assault on the northern Syrian town of Kobane. The prosecutor describes this statement as incitement to armed insurrection, although the statement did not call for violent protest. The indictment lists in detail the consequences of these protests, which resulted in up to 50 fatalities in towns throughout the southeast and widespread destruction of property.
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.
Other HDP members of parliament face similar charges, and eight others are currently held in pretrial detention while the cases against them are heard. In March, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the crackdown on the HDP and a related local party, The report examined the criminal charges and dismissals affecting elected representatives and assessed the resulting rights violations.
“The evidence against Selahattin Demirtaş consists largely of his political speeches and lacks any compelling evidence of criminal activity,” Williamson said. “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.”