Jailed pro-Kurdish leader says fair trial impossible in Erdogan’s Turkey

Kurdis protesters demand release of Demirtas during a rally in front of Turkish Embassy in Washington, US, on July 19.

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s jailed pro-Kurdish opposition leader said no judge could stand up to Tayyip Erdogan, expressing doubts he could ever have a fair trial after the president publicly labeled him a terrorist.

In a rare interview from prison, Selahattin Demirtas also told Reuters he believed he accepted some blame for failing to halt the collapse of peace talks between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The former human rights lawyer is one of more than a dozen lawmakers from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) arrested in a crackdown that followed last year’s attempted coup. They are mostly accused of links to the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe. All deny the charges.

“The decision to arrest me and my colleagues is political. Currently, Turkey’s judiciary is under the complete control and pressure of the AK Party,” Demirtas said, referring to the ruling party founded by Erdogan.

“No one has the chance of a fair trial,” he said in written response to questions submitted by Reuters to his lawyers.

Erdogan faces broader domestic and European Union criticism that he has subverted the judiciary in the course of a post-coup crackdown that has seen more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors dismissed from their posts.

“Unfortunately, no judges in Turkey can object to Erdogan’s unlawful and transgressive remarks. Judges are facing the threat of being removed, sacked or jailed. We will certainly hold Erdogan and judges who abide by him accountable.”

Erdogan, still by far the most popular political leader in Turkey after 15 years in power, made his feelings about Demirtas clear when asked about him this month by a reporter.

“Turkey is a state of law…The person you mentioned is a terrorist. We don’t have the authority to release terrorists from jail.”

Demirtas has turned the HDP into the third-largest party in parliament, drawing support from beyond its Kurdish core to include some pro-Western liberals. Its emergence has at times threatened to hinder an overall AK Party majority.

Tattered Peace Process

Some 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended and roughly 50,000 people have been detained since the failed coup. Rights groups and some Western allies say Erdogan is using the putsch as a pretext to quash dissent. The HDP says as many as 5,000 of its members have been detained.

Erdogan says such measures are necessary after the coup that killed more than 240 people and revealed, according to government accounts, a conspiracy embracing sectors of society from the judiciary to police, the arts to academia.

Prosecutors are seeking jail sentences of 142 years for Demirtas and 83 years for former HDP co-head Figen Yusekdag on charges of propaganda in support of a terrorist group.

Demirtas, who was jailed in November and is being held at a prison in the northwestern province of Edirne, refused to attend a court hearing two weeks ago because police told him he would have to be handcuffed.

The HDP occasionally shares his artwork from prison, including short stories and two paintings – one of a horse and the other of a small child staring out from a half-open door.

The HDP denies direct ties to the PKK, which since 1984 has carried out an armed insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast that has left more than 40,000 dead.

In July 2015 a 2-1/2-year ceasefire and a historic peace process between the PKK and the state collapsed, plunging the southeast into some of the worst violence in decades. Demirtas said the HDP could have done more to save the peace talks.

“President Erdogan and his AK Party thought that the peace process was costing them votes, and decided to terminate it. The PKK didn’t do enough to revive the process, and to frustrate the AK Party’s policies of war and violence,” he said.

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