Kurdish leader Demirtaş remains in prison despite release orders due to political pressure, lawyer says

Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), should have been freed from prison after last week's ruling by Turkey's top court, his lawyer Ramazan Demir told Ahval.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) ruled that the lengthy imprisonment of Demirtaş violated his rights to freedom on June 19.

Demirtaş’s legal ordeal began on November 4, 2016, when the HDP co-chair and 12 other HDP parliamentary deputies were arrested, with prosecutors alleging they had links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed militant group that has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984.

Despite several court orders to release Demirtaş, both by domestic Turkish courts as by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Demirtaş remains behind bars in the high security prison of Edirne, west of Istanbul.

“We had submitted five separate appeals to the AYM at various times,” Demir said, including one filed during Demirtaş’s presidential run, and another after Turkish authorities refused to comply with the ECHR ruling that found that the Kurdish leader’s rights had been violated. 

“The AYM combined all these appeals and issued one ruling to cover all of them,” the lawyer said. However, the top court's ruling is "particularly critique-worthy" as it lacks the political aspects of Demirtaş's continuing imprisonment, he said.

All sectors of Turkey’s public – with the notable exception of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – said Demirtaş should have been out of prison to run his campaign, Demir said. 

“The ECHR made the same emphasis in its ruling dated Nov. 20, 2018, and went as far as to rule that the imprisonment was prolonged out of political motivation,” he added. 

“The ECHR clearly stated that (the imprisonment) was a process that had been kickstarted by the president’s intervention.”

The AYM ruling paralleled that of the ECHR, only without the political motivation part, the lawyer said.

“We said it was a direct hindrance to him running against the president on equal footing. All of Turkey, all the world said the same thing, but the AYM did not join in,” Demir said.

One case used to justify Demirtaş’s continued arrest was that related to the events of October 6-8 in 2014, when Erdoğan’s comments against the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane led to days of insurrection on Turkey’s streets, resulting in the death of several dozen people. The president and the court handling the case agreed that Demirtaş had instigated hate and violence.

“That case is a great injustice,” Demir said. “They included Demirtaş in a dubious case and arrested him. This is judicial engineering.”

The AYM in actuality renounced the pieces of evidence presented during the time of the presidential campaign, including the October 6-8 events, Demir said. 

“Naturally, in a country that respects its own laws, under a government that respects its own courts, Demirtaş should not spend one minute in prison.”

The lawyers will cite the AYM ruling to file another appeal. Demirtaş is charged with instigating violence, looting, killing and bodily harm, but has “nothing to do with any of it,” Demir said.

All charges are based on a tweet sent out from an HDP Twitter account calling for peaceful protests “urging people to exercise their democratic right to protest,” Demir said, including those against Demirtaş’s co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ who also remains in prison. 

The existing ECHR ruling is clear, but the lawyers are also waiting for how the ECHR Grand Chamber ruling will turn out.

“Both us and the government appealed the ruling, but the government’s defence during the previous hearing was not very effective,” Demir said. 

“In turn, we stressed once again that the judges and prosecutors were not neutral.”

“I do not believe that there is a judge in Turkey today brave enough to rule for the release Demirtaş,” Demir said, “so long as the president, the justice ministry and the council of judges and prosecutors remain where they are at.”

Erdal Doğan, human rights lawyer, said “interestingly, new charges were brought against Demirtaş over the same charges on Sept. 20, 2019, and he remains in prison,” Doğan said.

“The landscape we face now is more political than judicial,” he added. 

“The AYM creates this perception for Europe and the West that there is rule of law in Turkey, to say, ‘Look, we do issue such verdicts,’ while keeping both co-chairs in prison on the very charges.”

There already is another appeal submitted by Demirtaş’s lawyers that pertains to the re-arrest on Sept. 20, Doğan said. 

“Were their intentions to release Demirtaş, the AYM could easily do it right now over this appeal.”

The ECHR is not free from criticism, Doğan said, as it ruled in favour of the initial arrest, going against its own case law while objecting to the prolonged detention.

Political figures like Demirtaş and philanthropist Osman Kavala, who also remains in prison over a labyrinth of acquittals and indictments, have a significant effect on the public, Doğan said.

The continued arrest of political figures is related to imposing control over the Kurdish issue and Turkey’s opposition.

“We cannot speak about the law in Turkey anymore,” Doğan said.

 “I wish we could, but the law has been politicised and judicial institutions are used by the government as a tool for political argument.”

Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies are deeply intertwined, he said, adding that currently the country is trying to rebuild bridges with the United States, Europe and NATO. Whether Turkey decides on a renewed alliance with the West or shift further towards Russia will also determine domestic politics, including over the Kurdish issue, Doğan said.

AKP’s domestic alliances, with the far-right National Movement Party and the group called the Eurasianists, will also be a determining factor in how things will develop for Demirtaş, the HDP, and the Kurdish issue in general, he said.

“The stagnation and economic burden brought over by the post-pandemic process and uncertainties regarding the allies could usher a new election cycle,” Doğan said.

Whether imprisoned politicians, activists and journalists will be released depending on how future hands are dealt and played out, he said.