Turkey pro-Kurdish leader, absent from 'terror' trial, to stay in jail

Luana Sarmini-Buonaccorsi and Raziye Akkoc
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Turkish pro-Kurdish opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas has spent more than a year behind bars

A Turkish court on Thursday ordered the co-leader of the main pro-Kurdish opposition party to remain in custody after over a year behind bars, as his non-appearance in court angered supporters.

Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) went on trial in Ankara on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish rebels, claims his party says are politically motivated.

But Demirtas was not present as trial got under way at the Sincan prison complex in Ankara province, in what his party said was a delibate bid to silence the charismatic politician.

The judge said he refused to appear via video link. The court ruled he had to stay in jail and set the date for the next hearing as February 14.

Demirtas was first detained in November last year in a crackdown under the state of emergency that followed the 2016 failed coup.

Before his arrest Demirtas was considered one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's major rivals, a silky orator who has succeeded in bringing his party from the fringe into the political mainstream.

Demirtas, 44, is charged with "managing a terror organisation", "making propaganda for a terror group" and "inciting criminal acts" among other accusations.

He faces up to 142 years in prison if convicted.

The MP is being held in prison in the northwestern region of Edirne and the party has previously accused the justice ministry of preventing any court appearances by Demirtas.

Defence lawyers called for Demirtas' acquittal, arguing what he was charged with was part of his legal political activity, and also urged he be allowed to appear in court in person.

Hundreds of supporters turned up outside the complex, chanting "oppression will not intimidate us" and "Selahattin Demirtas is our honour", an AFP correspondent said.

"I was detained on the pretext that I was shirking justice but for the last 13 months it is justice that has avoided me," Demirtas tweeted through a third party.

"The word justice has been completely erased from the courts and now only resides in the Palace," he wrote in reference to Erdogan's grand Ankara residence.

- 9 MPs in prison -

A dozen HDP MPs were detained at the same time as Demirtas, including former co-chair Figen Yuksekdag. She was stripped of her MP status in February and stepped down in May.

Nine HDP MPs are still in prison, including Demirtas and Yuksekdag.

Under Demirtas' leadership, the HDP became the second biggest opposition party, winning support from liberal and left-wing Turks beyond its Kurdish base.

But the government accuses it of being a political front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group blacklisted by Turkey and its Western allies.

Analysts say Demirtas never succeeded in fully distancing his party from the PKK, though the HDP denies the claims.

It has rubbished Ankara's accusations against its co-leader, saying Demirtas' 501-page indictment was based on press releases, speeches, panels and similar legal and political activities.

- 'Political reasons' -

The party claimed the accusations were "prepared for political reasons, not legal ones" because they date back to events between 2011 and 2013 but the HDP says the case was only prepared early last year.

"It's hard to conclude otherwise than that the case against him is the government's politically motivated attempt to undermine the parliamentary opposition," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Renowned US intellectual and linguist Noam Chomsky was among authors and politicians who signed a petition this week calling for Demirtas and Yuksekdag to be released.

While in custody, former human rights lawyer Demirtas has written poetry, produced artwork and even written a selection of short stories entitled "Seher" ("Dawn" in Turkish).

- HDP hard hit -

After the June 2015 election which the HDP hailed as a triumph, the two-year ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state fell apart and intense fighting resumed.

More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched its insurgency against Turkey in 1984.

Since the government imposed a state of emergency after the July 2016 failed coup, tens of thousands of people have been arrested over alleged links to the putsch. Government critics and Kurdish activists have also been targeted.

The HDP has been hit hard with 11,500 officials, members and party sympathisers detained since the end of the ceasefire, while 4,537 have been formally arrested.