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‘I’m in prison because I’m a Kurd,’ says jailed Kurdish leader Demirtaş

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Jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş, a two-time presidential candidate and former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who is currently in his seventh year of imprisonment, claimed at a trial hearing that he is being persecuted because he is Kurdish and a Kurdish politician.

Demirtaş, the most prominent Kurdish politician in Turkey today, has been behind bars since November 2016 on politically motivated charges.

Demirtaş, who attended the hearing via video link from prison in Edirne, is accused of “publicly denigrating the government and state organs” in speeches at rallies in 2015 and 2016 and faces up to 20 years in prison.

Demirtaş said if he were a “racist, fascist gang leader,” he would not be on trial today.

He emphasized that he feels obliged to tell the truth for the millions who voted for him. The court rejected most of his lawyers’ motions and scheduled the next hearing for May 15, 2024.

His 25 lawyers, who defended Demirtaş at the 14th Mersin High Criminal Court, pointed to the one-sided collection of evidence and claimed that these speeches, similar to those made in parliament, should not be considered criminal.

Demirtaş questioned the investigation into his alleged insults of soldiers and police officers. The case is a compilation of several incidents in which Demirtaş commented on crimes against the Kurdish population during military operations.

Presenting photos of the corpses of people who appeared to have been tortured in various provinces, Demirtaş called on the court to prioritize humanity over protecting those who commit such acts.

He criticized the prosecutor for ignoring his political role, the politicization of the judiciary and the promotion of judges who sentenced him and other opposition figures.

In August a Turkish judge known for convicting dissidents was put in charge of Turkey’s Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), in a move seen as a reward for his decisions favoring President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

Demirtaş was an outspoken critic of AKP and its leader, Erdoğan, before he was jailed. He ran in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2018 as a rival to Erdoğan. The imprisoned leader conducted his election campaign from jail for the 2018 election.

Through his lawyers, he also actively supported the election campaign of the HDP — which ran under the Green Left Party (YSP) due to the threat of closure by the top court — and the opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for the May election on social media.

Erdoğan, in a speech after emerging as the winner of the May 28 election that will extend his 20-year rule until 2028, referred to Demirtaş as a “terrorist” and accused him of responsibility for the deaths of 51 people during street protests in the predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakır in 2014.

Following Erdoğan’s remarks about the Kurdish leader, his supporters chanted “Execution for Selo,” referring to Demirtaş.

Reacting to the incident in a tweet posted through his lawyers at the time, Demirtaş described Erdoğan as “the elderly king, who is drunk with a fraudulent and fake victory and continues his spree of slander, threats and insults from the balcony of his luxurious palace” and his supporters as a “lynching crowd intoxicated by lies and pleasure.”

Demirtaş previously listed in a series of tweets four court decisions for his release that were rendered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2018, the Ankara 19th High Criminal Court in 2019, the Constitutional Court in 2020 and the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in 2021, saying President Erdoğan prevented compliance with those decisions.

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