Top Turkish court upholds jail term for Demirtaş as prosecutions of Kurds escalate

The Turkish Court of Cassation has upheld a four-year eight-month prison sentence against Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Mezopotamya news agency reported on Thursday.

The timing of the top court’s decision, which came on the same day the so-called Kobane trials began, “shows that the ruling is part of the attacks to disband our party and our elected officials via the judiciary,” HDP deputy co-chair for human rights Ümit Dede said.

On April 26, court proceedings began against Demirtaş and 107 other HDP members accused of inciting street protests when the Islamic State (ISIS) threatened to overrun the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane in Oct. 2014.

The politician was first arrested in Nov. 2016 along with then-HDP co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ and several other HDP members of parliament.

He stands accused of more than 90 charges, including committing crimes in the name of a terrorist group while not being a member of the group, a distinct article in Turkish law that casts a wide and indiscriminate net over opposition political activity.

Prosecutors allege Demirtaş has ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for four decades. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States.

He originally handed the four-year eight-month sentence in 2017 for a speech he gave marking Newroz, the traditional Kurdish celebration of the spring equinox, four years earlier.

However, on Nov 20. 2018 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Demirtaş was being unlawfully held and should be immediately released.

A lower court of appeals subsequently rushed through the approval of Demirtaş’ 2017 sentence just 14 days later as a pretext for keeping him imprisoned, according to his lawyers. The initial appeals process can usually take up to a year, they said.    

Criticising the ECHR ruling at the time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “There are many things we can do in response. We will make our counter-move and finish the job.”

HDP's Dede said the courts had taken Erdoğan’s comments as a command, and “once again fulfilled the requirements of the political order they received”.

In the Kobane trial, Demirtaş is accused of first-degree murder, attempted murder, robbery, incitement to violence and violating the integrity of the state, over speeches that allegedly led to social unrest between Oct. 6 and 8, 2014.

As many as 34 people were killed during mass demonstrations in solidarity with the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobane, which was besieged by ISIS just metres from the Turkish border. Several HDP supporters died at the hands of the police, according to BBC Turkish.

Other casualties included 16-year-old Yasin Börü, a supporter of the Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), an Islamist pro-Kurdish party loosely allied with Erdoğan. Börü has since become a symbol of the violence for the government and its supporters, with Erdoğan  personally blaming Demirtaş for the teenager’s death.

“Let’s join the historic resistance together, so we will have the opportunity to build a historic alliance and a historic unity after,” the indictment against Demirtaş cites the former HDP leader as saying while Kobane was under siege. Two secret witnesses told the court that Demirtaş had been ordered to speak these words by the PKK.

In the full text of the speech released by the HDP, Demirtaş calls for peacebuilding and the prevention of a “historic mistake”. This context “clearly shows” Demirtaş’ was calling for unity with the Turkish government and the international community to fight ISIS, the party said.

The next hearing of the Kobane trial will be held on May 18 after being postponed by the recent COVID-19 lockdown.

Meanwhile, the HDP continues to face closure by authorities. On March 17, state prosecutors filed a lawsuit to the Constitutional Court (AYM) seeking the dissolution of the party, citing the terrorism cases against dozens of top officials.

The AYM rejected the indictment on a technicality, but a new application by prosecutors is expected shortly. If the HDP is found to be a “focus of terrorist acts”, as cited in anti-terror laws, it faces legal disbandment and a ban on its leaders from engaging in political activity for a set period of years.   

HDP is currently the second-largest opposition bloc and the third-largest party in the country.