Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed presidential candidate of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP), appeared on national TV for the first time on Sunday since his arrest 20 months ago as the country gears up for elections in less than 10 days.
“The only reason I am here is because the AKP is afraid of me,” he said in a 10-minute speech on state-run TRT, pre-recorded at a supermax prison in Edirne province on the border with Greece.
The public-funded broadcaster is legally mandated to allocate time to each candidate, though the opposition has strongly criticized it for the significantly more airtime it gives to incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, also the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
A thin-looking Demirtas called Erdoğan “a low-grade bully” and “delusional” without naming him and told voters not to choose a one-man rule.
“What we are going through nowadays is only the trailer of the one-man regime. The actual scary part is yet to begin. By casting your vote, you will decide on June 24 whether or not to consolidate the atmosphere of fear,” he said and added: “There is a one-time opportunity ahead before entering a dark tunnel with no end in sight. We should take advantage and pull our country back from the precipice.”
In the beginning of his speech Demirtaş reminded that he has appeared before a court only twice since his arrest in November 2016, adding that all charges against him are based on his previous remarks as the former co-leader of the HDP. “I am not going to bow down even if [they] keep me in prison not for 20 months, but for 20 years,” Demirtas vowed and added that the only reason he was in jail was the ruling AKP’s fear of releasing him.
He added that if the despotism and injustice in Turkey were only limited to him, he would not bother to raise the issue, adding that he knew everyone in Turkey has been experiencing and observing this despotism and injustice in their daily lives.
Earlier in the day, Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency ran a story with the headline “A First in the History of World Democracy,” apparently in praise of the current state of Turkish democracy for allowing Demirtaş to speak from behind bars.
“Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş will be the first presidential candidate in the history of world democracy to have made a speech on state TV while in detention as TRT is to air his remarks,” it said, without specifying what time he would appear.
Erdoğan has numerous times labeled Demirtaş as a “terrorist” and last week went so far as to suggest that he should be executed for Kurdish riots in 2014, although no charges were filed against Demirtaş in relation to the deadly protests in which 43 people were killed, a majority of them by police.
Demirtaş said the empowered Erdoğan who “threatens with prison and death” was now “afraid of his own shadow.” He explained that the judiciary in Turkey had succumbed to Erdoğan and that his continued detention was a result of political pressure.
As millions tuned in at home, tens of thousands of others watched the imprisoned leader on giant screens in İstanbul and Bursa, western Turkish cities with sizable Kurdish populations where the HDP was holding election rallies. In the capital of Ankara, though, the police did not let the party set up screens at Ahmed Arif Park for people to watch.
At the end of his speech, Demirtaş criticised the unlawful and unfair broadcasting policies of TRT and its executives while sending his regards to the rest of the TRT staff.
Demirtaş was jailed in November 2016 and charged with membership in a terrorist organisation and disseminating terrorist propaganda, both in relation to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Meanwhile, an HDP rally in İstanbul carried Demirtaş’s TRT speech live to their supporters as it was happening.