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Terror Charges Dropped Against Pro-Kurdish Leader

By Ezel Sahinkaya September 2, 2019

A court in Turkey has dropped terror charges against a prominent pro-Kurdish politician who has been jailed for more than two years, but authorities are still pursuing a separate case against him, which could keep him imprisoned.

Selahattin Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), was accused of leading a terrorist organization, carrying out terrorist propaganda, and other terror-related crimes for which he was faced with up to 142 years in prison.

According to Anadolu Agency, a state-run news agency, Demirtas was accused of being a leader of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party, known as PKK, which is designated by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU as a terrorist organization.

He was also accused of having links to the violence that erupted in 2014 after protesters took to the streets to criticize the government's policies in neighboring Syria. At least 30 people were reportedly killed.

Monday's court ruling cleared Demirtas of the terror charges from the main case against him. However, he could still serve time in prison for another case in which he has been charged with supporting a terrorist organization during a speech he gave in 2013.

Demirtas' lawyers

Demirtas' lawyers were not present during Monday's court hearing as they are preparing for another key hearing in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)'s Grand Chamber scheduled for later this month.

The prosecutor was trying to convince the judge to find him guilty on the original terror charges. However, the court decided otherwise and ordered his release on bail.

"He must be released. He previously was convicted for propagandizing [terror organization]. The court of appeal has had similar rulings so that he can be released under probation," Emin Aktar, one of Demirtas' lawyers, told VOA.

Demirtas participated in Monday's court hearing in Ankara via a teleconference from Edirne prison where he is detained. He denied the prosecutor's charges.

"I am in prison for now since I was convicted [of another case]. Let's hope for the best for a fair trial," Demirtas said.

Speech-related charges

Demirtas is currently serving time for allegedly supporting pro-Kurdish rebels during a speech he gave in 2013. Turkish authorities pursued that case against him following mounting pressure from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which criticized Turkey for keeping him in pre-trial detention for longer than is legally justified.

Some experts say the speech-related charges were to ensure that Demirtas stays behind bars should the court acquit him of additional charges pertaining to the main case.

"It is absolutely crystal clear that conviction by different courts was due to the fact that this case was fast-tracked [speech-related case]. And the decision was issued after the ECHR and after the president of Turkey's statement on the case made the political nature of the judgment very clear," Andrew Gardner, a Turkey expert at Amnesty International, told VOA in December.

ECHR's involvement

Last November, Strasbourg-based ECHR ruled that Demirtas' pre-trial detention had gone on longer than is legally justified and demanded that Turkish authorities release him.

Turkey responded that it was not obligated to adhere to ECHR's ruling.

"ECHR decisions are not binding for us. There are also so many things we can do against ECHR's decision. We will make a countermove and finish it off," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time.

Turkey is one of 47 members of the ECHR and is legally obligated to adhere to the court's rulings. However, Turkey has not adhered to the court's rulings on several occasions.

ECHR is scheduled to have another hearing this month at the request of Turkey and Demirtas himself, in which the court would discuss the legality of his pre-trail detention.

"The forthcoming hearing of the ECHR concerns the arrest and pre-trial detention of Selahattin Demirtas, who at the time of the events was one of the co-chairs of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing pro-Kurdish political party," ECHR said in a statement recently.

Kerem Altiparmak, deputy chair of Turkey's Human Rights Association, said Monday that Turkey would defend its position in the upcoming hearing by maintaining that Demirtas' continued detention is justified.

"Turkey would make a case in front of ECHR that the applicant [Demirtas] is in prison not because he was convicted in this [main] case, but in another case," Altiparmak tweeted.

Who is Demirtas?

Demirtas has run for the Turkish presidency twice. In June 2015, during the country's parliamentary elections, his pro-Kurdish party secured more than 10% of the general vote, forcing Erdogan's Justice and Development Party to build a coalition for the first time since the party was established, instead of forming a majority government in the country.

Demirtas played a significant role in mobilizing opposition voters at the time.

In May 2016, Turkey's parliament passed a law removing parliamentary immunity for those with pending courts cases, which led to Demirtas' detention on terrorism charges that year.

Some analysts charge that the law was passed so that Turkey could crack down on people like Demirtas.

Demirtas was serving as a member of the parliament and leader of the HDP when he was detained. He has been held ever since.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

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