Jailed Kurdish leader urges dissidents in Turkey to be hopeful for 2023 elections

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Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been behind bars since November 2016 on politically motivated charges, has advised Turkey’s dissidents not to lose hope for the next elections scheduled for 2023, the Mezopotamya news agency reported.

The Kurdish leader on Friday attended the first hearing of a trial in which he stands accused of “insulting the president” at the Mersin 14th Criminal Court of First Instance via the Audio and Visual Information System (SEGBİS) from Edirne Prison.

“I’m not afraid of prison sentences. … You’ll probably give me three to five more years [in jail]. That’s OK, it’s all going to last until the elections [in 2023]. What I want is that [dissidents in] Turkey not lose hope. We only have one-and-a-half years [to wait], [then] it’s [time for] Turkey to choose,” Demirtaş said in his defense statement.

The accusation against Demirtaş, who was in March sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in remarks he made after the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey in 2015, is based speeches he made in Ankara, Diyarbakır, Mardin and Mersin between 2014 and 2016, according to Mezopotamya.

Referring to Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which stipulates punishment for insults to the president, Demirtaş said: “We are going through a period where [the number of] investigations launched on charges of insulting the president has risen to record highs. A total of 138,000 investigations have been launched against citizens of the Republic of Turkey [on charges of insulting Erdoğan]. There have been about 30,000 convictions. Citizens are pressured not to criticize the elected president.”

Underlining that he knows there are a number of judges and prosecutors in Turkey who believe in the rule of law and the necessity of an independent judiciary, he added, “As the country prepares for the elections, the [Justice and Development Party (AKP)] government shouldn’t wield power over media and the society. Everybody should be able to freely express themselves.”

While Demirtaş’s lawyers demanded dismissal of the case, arguing that Article 299 of the TCK contravenes the constitution, lawyers representing the president urged the court to reject the demands.

The court decided to evaluate requests of both parties and adjourned the trial until December 31.

According to Justice Ministry data, a total of 160,169 investigations and 35,507 cases have been launched on charges of insulting the president over the past seven years, beginning with the election of Erdoğan to the presidency in 2014 to the end of 2020, local media reported on Tuesday.

Some 38,608 people, including 322 minors between the ages of 12 and 14 and 785 between the ages of 15 and 17, were prosecuted on charges of insulting Erdoğan in the 2014-2020 period, while 3,625 people were sentenced to prison, the ministry data further showed.

The insult cases generally stem from social media posts shared by Erdoğan opponents. The police and judiciary perceive even the most minor criticism of Erdoğan or his government as an insult.

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