EU court says Turkey sought to limit democracy with Demirtaş detention

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey sought to limit democratic freedoms and political debate by interning Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of a pro-Kurdish opposition party.

The court said the continued detention of Demirtaş, who was arrested in November 2016 on terrorism charges, through two crucial political campaigns - namely a 2017 referendum on strengthening presidential powers and June’s presidential election - was deliberately designed to stifle democracy. It called for his immediate release.

Several extensions of the applicant’s detention “pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of concept of a democratic society,” the Strasbourg, France-based court said in the ruling on Tuesday.

The court's decision marks a latest blow to Turkey's efforts to pursue membership of the European Union, blighted by EU assertions that the country is straying from the bloc's democratic values under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of politicians, journalists, academics and bureaucrats on terrorism charges since a failed military coup in July 2016, prompting an outcry from western governments and human rights defenders. Erdoğan, who won increased powers at the June election, held under a state of emergency, says that the measures are needed to maintain democracy and order in the country.

"A clear verdict by the European Court of Human Rights: Demirtaş must be released immediately," Kati Piri, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Turkey, said in a statement on Twitter. "His detention is of a political, not a criminal nature." 

Pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş

Demirtaş, 44, who unsuccessfully stood against Erdoğan in Turkey’s June 24 presidential election from his prison cell, was arrested on terrorism charges along with other members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Turkey asserts that the politicians and activists supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group recognised as terrorists by the EU and the United States.

“The court considers that the respondent state [Turkey] must ensure that the applicant’s pre-trial detention… is ended at the earliest possible date, unless new grounds and evidence justifying his continued detention are put forward,” the ECHR said in the ruling.

Erdoğan, speaking to his deputies at the parliament in Ankara, responded to the court's ruling saying Turkey would not abide by it.

"The decision does not bind us," he said. "We will counter it and finish what we're doing."

Daniel Holtgen, director of communications for the Council of Europe, said that Turkey is required to implement the court's decisions.

Demirtaş, who faces a maximum combined jail sentence of 183 years, had applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court along with other members of the HDP, saying his arrest was unconstitutional and a “violation of individual freedom and safety, freedom of expression and election right”. He applied to the ECHR in February 2017 saying the Turkish court had failed to carry out an investigation.

(Story was updated with EC spokesperson in the 10th paragraph).