Turkish judge admits to bias during Demirtaş hearing

A Turkish judge admitted to bias on Wednesday during the trail of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, who urged the judges to withdraw from the case, Duvar news site reported

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) asked Turkey last month to release the former head of the the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), and ruled that Turkey sought to limit democratic freedoms and political debate by imprisoning Demirtaş, who was arrested in November 2016 on terrorism charges. 

Last week, in a separate case, a Turkish appeals court upheld a four-year-and-eight-month prison sentence for Demirtaş for spreading terrorist propaganda, effectively preventing the implementation of the ECHR decision.

Demirtaş’s hearing began on Wednesday morning in the Turkish capital of Ankara. In his defense, Demirtaş criticised the court for ruling for the continuation of his detention, while asking the Ministry of Justice its opinion on the ECHR’s ruling.

“The Ministry of Justice represents the Turkish government in the ECHR, it means it is a side in the case,” he said. “You supported a particular side openly by asking for an opinion from an institution that is a side in my case.”

Demirtaş urged the judges to withdraw from the case, saying that the court had demonstrated that it would not continue the trial in a neutral way, Duvar news site reported. 

“My lawyers and I do not demand my release, we want you to make the right decision by withdrawing from the case. We are the only power supporting democracy in this country. I don’t know whether you would like to support it too,” he said.

The head judge responded to Demirtaş. “Alright, I am biased,” he said, according to Duvar. Those words created tension in the courtroom and the judges called a ten-minute break, accusing an HDP deputy of disturbing the peace. 

Meanwhile, a Turkish court accepted on Wednesday another indictment requesting up to 10-year sentence for terrorism propaganda charges for Demirtaş for a speech he made in 2016, Anadolu Agency reported

During the speech delivered in the eastern province of Van, Demirtaş asked people to resist the mayors appointed by the Turkish government, which had dismissed the elected mayors of the HDP, Anadolu said. 

The Kurdish politician penned a letter published by Le Monde on Saturday calling for international solidarity during his next hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

The European Parliament held a debate on the case of Demirtaş in Strasbourg on Tuesday, a day before his hearing.

“The fate of Selahattin Demirtaş is an issue that I believe lies close to the hearts of many of us,” the European Union’s top foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in the European Parliament. “He has been for long years an interlocutor for many, and a key figure in Turkey's democratic debate.” She added that they were not only discussing the fate of a human being, but the state of the Turkish democracy. 

“The independence of Turkey's judiciary is being undermined,” said Mogherini. “Fundamental rights, such as the presumption of innocence, are often ignored and violated. On the one hand, the case of Demirtaş reflects these larger trends. On the other hand, this case is unique. Demirtaş is a Member of Parliament, a former presidential candidate, the co-chair of his party and a democratically elected leader. His case speaks about pluralism in Turkey, and the right of every individual to take part in their country's democratic life - freely.”

Despite the Turkish court’s decision last week changing the legal status of Demirtaş, Mogherini said Turkey should immediately follow the ECHR ruling. 

“This is not just about Turkey's status as a candidate country – I would like to be very clear on this,” she said. “I believe this is about the kind of country the Turkish people want and deserve; a country with stronger institutions; a more inclusive country; a country where all the people of Turkey can find their place, and contribute to Turkish society's collective progress.”