Turkish court rules HDP Co-chair Demirtaş to remain behind bars

Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party Co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş was absent from the first hearing of his trial after spending 399 days in pretrial detention as he refused to appear before the court via a video conferencing system.

The court ruled to continue his detention.

According to the decision of the Ankara 19th Criminal Court on Thursday, Demirtaş will remain behind bars and his next hearing will be held on Feb. 14, 2018.

Demirtaş was absent from the proceedings as he refused to link to the courtroom via an audiovisual system after the panel of judges cited security reasons for not bringing him to the courtroom in person. The court also refused to allow most international and local observers to attend the hearing, citing “security concerns.” Only a dozen visitors and journalists were allowed into the courtroom.

Demirtaş was arrested on Nov. 4, 2016 when the government launched a crackdown on pro-Kurdish politicians following a failed coup attempt, which critics say has been expanded to target all government opponents and dissenting voices.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government accuses the HDP, the nation’s third-largest party in Parliament, of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The HDP denies the accusation.

According to AP, New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, criticized Demirtaş’s trial, calling it “part of a wider pattern of repression against government critics.”

“Holding the leader of a major opposition party in pre-trial detention for over a year on flimsy charges is another example of the political abuse of the criminal justice system we are repeatedly seeing in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s director for Europe and Central Asia.

Demirtaş’s lawyer Yusuf Alataş told the Hürriyet Daily News that the case “is a collection of 31 different summaries of proceedings that have been compiled into a joint case.”

“The main accusation is that he is the leader of an armed organization, which is a terror offense. All of the proceedings in this case are about Demirtaş’s speeches that he delivered as a politician. None of them contain any call for violence or an act of violence,” Alataş said.

The Turkish Parliament stripped lawmakers of legal immunity last year, paving the way for the arrest of several HDP legislators — including Demirtaş and former Co-chairwoman Figen Yüksekdağ — on terror-related charges.

The arrests follow the collapse of a fragile peace process between the state and the PKK in 2015. The group is considered a terror organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Yüksekdağ lost her seat in Parliament earlier this year after an appeals court confirmed her 2013 conviction for engaging in terrorist propaganda, and she later stepped down as the HDP’s co-leader.

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