The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Tuesday urged Turkey to release pro-Kurdish opposition party leader Selahattin Demirtas from detention.
Police arrested and detained Demirtas for two years before his trial in September, at which the court sentenced him to four years in prison for allegedly supporting terrorism. He unsuccessfully ran for president of Turkey from prison in June.
The France-based ECHR ruled on Tuesday that “judicial authorities had extended Mr Demirtas’ detention on grounds that could not be regarded as ‘sufficient’ to justify its duration” and urged Turkish authorities to “take all necessary measures to put an end to the applicant’s pre-trial detention.”
“The cases and charges I was being prosecuted for have completely collapsed. Our battle for law and justice will continue under all circumstances,” Demirtas said upon learning of the European court ruling.
“After this decision, every second Mr. Demirtas remains jailed is a restriction on freedom,” his lawyer added.
Before his imprisonment, Demirtas was the co-chairman and public spokesman for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a sitting member of parliament. He ran for president as the party’s candidate for president this year from a maximum-security prison cell and came in third place.
The HDP is the first pro-Kurdish party to meet the threshold of votes necessary to hold seats in the Turkish parliament. Its growing popularity poses a significant threat to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is not noted for his fondness for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Demirtas was arrested in November 2016 along with the co-chair of HDP, Figen Yusekdag, and several other members of parliament. The arrests were exercises of the emergency powers Erdogan claimed after the failed coup against him in July 2016.
The initial charge against Demirtas was that he failed to cooperate with counter-terrorism investigators but he was later accused of spreading terrorist propaganda and working on behalf of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a violent separatist organization. Demirtas countered that he was being unfairly prosecuted for attempting to build friendly relations with PKK leadership in 2013, at a time when the Turkish government was engaged in a peace process with the Kurdish separatists. The Erdogan administration sees the HDP – and most other Kurdish organization in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq – as little more than a wing of the PKK.
The European Court of Human Rights ruling accepted that police initially detained Demirtas on “reasonable suspicion” of a criminal offense, but the court said he was detained far too long before receiving a trial and was unfairly prevented from discharging his duties as a member of parliament, which essentially disenfranchised the people who voted for him.
“The Court found that it had been established beyond reasonable doubt that the extensions of Mr. Demirtas’ detention, especially during two crucial campaigns, namely the referendum and the presidential election, had pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which was at the very core of the concept of a democratic society,” the ruling stated.
The ECHR elaborated that Demirtas did not appear to meet the conditions for extended pretrial detention, such as “a risk of absconding, tampering with evidence, or putting pressure on witnesses,” and noted Turkish prosecutors scarcely made an effort to demonstrate his imprisonment was necessary under those conditions. A perfunctory effort was made at portraying him as a flight risk, but the ECHR found that contention absurd given his status as a sitting member of the National Assembly for almost ten years at the time of his arrest.
The ECHR also rejected the contention of Turkish prosecutors that the sheer number of charges leveled against Demirtas, good for over 140 years of prison time if he is found guilty on all counts, justified keeping him in prison until a long series of trials could be arranged. The overall tone of the ruling is one of severe disapproval of throwing sitting opposition officeholders in jail without a proper trial, although the court rejected some of Demirtas’ complaints, including his contention that he never should have been arrested at all.
“The decisions delivered by the ECHR do not bind us,” Erdogan said on Tuesday.
“There are many things we can do in response. We’ll make our counter-move and finish it off,” he added ominously.
The Associated Press noted Turkey is legally obliged to respect ECHR rulings because it signed the European convention on human rights. Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul indicated a desire to review the ruling but insisted Turkish courts would decide Demirtas’ fate.
The EHCR also awarded Demirtas about $30,000 in damages and court costs, although chances of collecting the money appear slim at the moment.