Human rights watchdogs call for release of Kurdish politicians

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 called on the Turkish government to release former co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ and other former HDP deputies in a joint statement on Thursday.

The statement described the detention of Demirtaş and eight other democratically elected HDP deputies four years ago this month as “the start of the government’s ongoing assault on the party and part of a broader pattern of politically motivated prosecutions and incarcerations.”

“Over the past four years the Turkish government has distorted and perverted the legal process to serve the political aim of keeping opposition politicians Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yüksekdağ, and other former HDP deputies locked up,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Turkish government has misused detention and criminal proceedings in a campaign of persecution against Demirtaş in particular, including by flouting a European Court of Human Rights’ [ECtHR] order to release him and concocting new baseless charges to keep him behind bars.”

According to the statement Demirtaş and the others are being targeted because they led the HDP’s political opposition to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ remain in detention in Edirne F-type and Kandıra F-type prisons in western Turkey, respectively, and are among six former HDP members of parliament still in prison after being detained on November 4, 2016, and in one case a few weeks later, while they were serving as deputies. Their prosecutions were overwhelmingly based on their political speeches over the years.

The Turkish government accuses the HDP of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed secessionist group that has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

Members of the Turkish parliament normally enjoy a high level of immunity from prosecution for their political activities while in office. The arrest and detention of the HDP deputies were based on a controversial temporary constitutional amendment and parliamentary vote in May 2016 that lifted their parliamentary immunity.

“The decision to lift immunity from prosecution for parliamentarians in Turkey has enabled serious attacks on democratic institutions in Turkey,” said Sarah Clarke, head of Europe and Central Asia at ARTICLE 19. “The speeches of President Erdoğan concerning Demirtaş and the subsequent refusal of the court to release him, despite the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, is a shocking reminder of the power of the executive in Turkey to influence court proceedings.”

On November 20, 2018 the ECtHR ruled that Demirtaş’s lengthy pre-trial detention had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, ordering the Turkish government to pay 10,000 euros in compensation and calling for his release. “It had been established beyond reasonable doubt that the extensions of Mr. Demirtaş’ detention, especially during two crucial campaigns, the referendum and the presidential election, had pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate: the very core of the concept of a democratic society,” said the ruling.

Following the ECtHR decision, a Turkish appeals court upheld a four-year, eight-month sentence and in effect nullified the ECtHR decision.

“The Turkish government needs to carry out the long overdue release of Selahattin Demirtaş and comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights,” Williamson said. “The hand-in-glove coordination we have seen between President Erdoğan, prosecutors, and the Turkish courts to keep him behind bars in violation of his rights is a serious abuse of the rule of law and democratic safeguards.”

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