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European Court Urges Turkey to Free Pro-Kurdish Leader Demirtas

Europe’s top rights court on Tuesday called on Turkey to release pro-Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, who has been held for two years on terror charges — a call immediately rejected by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Demirtas, one of two former co-leaders of the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was arrested in November 2016 over his alleged links to Kurdish militants.

The charismatic 45-year-old, dubbed the Kurdish Obama, is charged with a string of offences, including terrorist propaganda, for which he faces up to 142 years’ imprisonment.

He denies all the charges and claims the case against him is politically motivated.

In a ruling keenly awaited by his supporters, the European Court of Human Rights in the French city of Strasbourg said it accepted that Demirtas had been arrested on “reasonable suspicion” of committing a crime.

But it said the reasons given for keeping him behind bars were not “sufficient”.

Demirtas was unable to fulfill his duties as a lawmaker, the court noted, calling it “an unjustified interference with the free expression of the opinion of the people and with his right to be elected and to sit in parliament.”

The extension of his detention — during an April 2017 referendum on expanding Erdogan’s powers and June 2018 presidential polls in which Demirtas ran as a candidate — was aimed at “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which was at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”, the judges added.

“The court therefore held, unanimously, that the respondent state was to take all necessary measures to put an end to the applicant’s pre-trial detention,” and ordered Turkey to pay Demirtas 10,000 euros ($11,500) in damages and 15,000 euros towards his legal costs.

A Turkish judge on the seven-justice ECHR panel, Isil Karakas, expressed a partly dissenting view from the majority opinion, saying it was not clear that Demirtas’s detention was politically motivated.

A defiant Erdogan summarily rejected the ruling.

“The decisions delivered by the ECHR do not bind us,” he was quoted as saying by the state-run Anadolu news agency after a meeting of his ruling party.

Demirtas hailed the decision, calling it a “legal acknowledgement of my status as a political hostage”.

“Our struggle for law and justice will continue under all circumstances,” he added in a statement released by his party.

‘Casting net widely’

Demirtas and former fellow HDP co-leader Figen Yuksekdag were among 12 lawmakers jailed in November 2016 as part of a mass crackdown after a failed coup in July 2016.

Tens of thousands of people, including politicians, academics and journalists, were arrested under a two-year state of emergency, heightening concerns over eroding freedom of speech and judicial independence in Turkey.

In June, Demirtas ran for president from prison, coming third with 8.4 percent of the vote behind Erdogan and Muharrem Ince, candidate of the main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The rulings of the ECHR, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, of which Turkey is a signatory, are binding on member states.

Turkey has in the past usually complied with its findings.

Erdogan’s claim that Turkey will not be bound by its latest decision is likely to add to tensions between Ankara and the Council of Europe, the pan-European rights body that oversees the ECHR.

“Under Article 46 of the convention all member states are bound by the rulings of the court,” a spokesman for the 47-nation council said on Tuesday.

In February, the council’s chief Thorbjorn Jagland warned Turkey against “casting the net too widely” in the mass crackdown that followed the failed 2016 coup, saying the situation had resulted in a backlog of rights complaints at the ECHR.


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