Jailed Kurdish leader makes first TV appeal ahead of Turkey vote

Supporters of imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, presidential candidate of People's Democratic Party (HDP), hold up the lights of their phones during a rally in Istanbul
AFP

Istanbul (AFP) – Turkey’s leading Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas on Sunday appeared on state television from his prison cell to denounce the government’s “repressive regime”, ahead of the presidential election next weekend. 

Demirtas, a former co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and presidential candidate, has been held since November 2016 on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish militants. 

Wearing a dark suit, he appeared on state-run TRT in a pre-recorded speech from his prison cell in the northwest province of Edirne, after Turkish authorities barred him from going to the broadcaster’s headquarters in the capital Ankara.

“The only reason why I am here is that the AKP is scared of me,” Demirtas said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the run up to the election campaign, TRT has been criticised for giving full coverage for Erdogan’s speeches while ignoring other party candidates, in particular Demirtas.

The 45-year-old, who was chosen by his party to challenge Erdogan in the June 24 elections and is often dubbed as the Kurdish Obama, is accused of being member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

Complaining of a “repressive regime” led by Erdogan, the Kurdish leader said: “What we are passing through is only one fragment of a one-man regime.” 

“The scary part of the movie has yet to start.”

– ‘Edge of a cliff’ –

He told the electorate that they would decide with their vote whether or not to be in favour of freedom. 

“I have no doubt that you will be on the side of freedom … We will get hold of our country from the edge of a cliff,” he said.

Demirtas claimed he would be acquitted of all charges as soon as possible, adding that he was not the only victim of “lawlessness.”

“You are victims of this oppression in your daily life,” he said.

If convicted Demirtas risks up to 142 years in jail.

The HDP put up a giant screen in the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir where hundreds gathered to watch his speech.

“I was touched by his speech,” said supporter Belkin Gulen. “We miss him. I hope God will open a door for him and he will be free.”

“The opposition has one single candidate who is Selahattin Demirtas. He is our hope,” Cengiz Akkos added.

Several thousand supporters also gathered at Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district on the European side of the city to watch the appeal, holding aloft flags and masks of the politician’s face.

Erdogan has in recent days mounted attacks against Demirtas, accusing him of being a “terrorist” responsible for the deaths of dozens by calling protests in October 2014 that turned violent.

Until his jailing, Demirtas was seen as the only Turkish politician to match the rhetorical skills and charisma comparable to Erdogan.

But in recent weeks Muharrem Ince of the secular Republican People’s Party had proved tough opposition for the president, who is still favourite to win.

Erdogan, along with opposition candidates Ince and Meral Aksener of the Iyi Parti (Good Party), refused to appear on the TRT broadcast.

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