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Erdoğan, far-right ally welcome lengthy prison sentences for Kurdish politicians

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his far-right ally, Devlet Bahçeli, have expressed satisfaction with the verdict in the Kobani trial, in which several Kurdish politicians, including former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, received lengthy prison sentences.

An Ankara court on Thursday sentenced 24 Kurdish politicians to prison terms ranging from nine to 42 years, while acquitting 12 others.

The trial, which has lasted nearly three years, centered on the events of October 6-8, 2014, when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) laid siege to the Syrian town of Kobani. Protests erupted across Turkey, particularly in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, resulting in 37 deaths.

The Turkish government accused HDP leaders of inciting the violence, while the defendants maintained their calls for solidarity with Kobani were within the bounds of freedom of expression.

During a speech on Monday Erdoğan commented on last week’s court ruling that sentenced Demirtaş to 42 years and Yüksekdağ to almost 33 years in prison.

“We see that justice has been served, albeit late, and we are satisfied for the victims and our democracy,” Erdoğan said.

The Kobani trial involved 108 defendants, 18 of whom were in prison. In addition to the lengthy sentences for Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, Mardin Mayor Ahmet Türk was sentenced to 10 years. Five defendants were released in consideration of time already served.

Erdoğan condemned the 2014 protests as a terrorist uprising rather than a demonstration.

“Those who incited, directed and provoked the October 6-8 events are well known. The law must hold them accountable,” he said, rejecting any notion of political prosecution.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Bahçeli echoed Erdoğan’s sentiments in a speech at his party’s group meeting on Tuesday, calling for the closure of the HDP and its successor, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party).

“The Constitutional Court must not delay the closure case of the HDP. The HDP and its successors must be shut down,” Bahçeli said.

Since March 2021 the HDP has been accused by the country’s top prosecutor of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a war against Turkey since 1984 and is listed as a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies, an accusation the party denies.

Bahçeli argued that the sentences reinforced the connection between the HDP and the PKK, asserting that the court’s decisions were a blow against terrorism.

The outcome of the Kobani trial has sparked renewed debate about the state of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey as Ankara faced criticism for criminalizing free speech and detaining Kurdish politicians arbitrarily to exclude them from politics.

The verdict made headlines around the world and drew global condemnation, especially given the plight of Erdoğan’s longtime nemesis Demirtaş.

The Kurdish leader challenged Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule back in 2015, with his HDP receiving a record 13 percent of the popular vote and denying the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party the parliamentary majority to form a government.

What followed was breakdown of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK that were initiated in 2012 and yielded a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire.

Erdoğan has taken an increasingly nationalist and anti-Kurdish stance since then.

Demirtaş has been behind bars since November 2016 despite 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.

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