Turkey: Release politicians wrongfully detained for 7 years

Adem Altan / AFP

Former deputies and mayors face prosecution and prolonged incarceration for political speech. The Turkish government should abide by international law and implement the binding judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) by immediately releasing politicians Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, who formerly co-chaired the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), four rights organisations said today.

Istanbul, November 3, 2023–The four nongovernmental organisations—Human Rights Watch, the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project, the International Commission of Jurists, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)—made their call on the seventh anniversary of the politicians’ wrongful imprisonment.

“The seventh anniversary of the unlawful incarceration of Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ is a stark reminder of the Erdoğan presidency’s willingness to use detention for political ends to silence democratically elected opposition politicians representing millions of Kurdish and leftist voters in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In defying the binding ECtHR judgments ordering the politicians’ release, Turkey is flagrantly violating its legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and international law more broadly.”

On November 4, 2016, months after being stripped of their parliamentary immunity, Demirtaş, Yüksekdağ and eight fellow members of Parliament from the HDP were arbitrarily detained and placed in pretrial detention, with four others incarcerated over the following five months. At the time, the HDP held 10.7 percent of seats in Turkey’s parliament and was backed by over five million voters. While the 12 other deputies whose cases are covered in the ECtHR judgments are no longer in detention, Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ remain incarcerated.

All the former parliamentarians have been repeatedly prosecuted in individual proceedings based exclusively on their exercise of their right to freedom of expression, protected under international law. This included their political speeches and activities, which did not involve or advocate violence. When a mass trial was opened against them in 2021, many of those ongoing individual case files were merged. The vague and wide-reaching accusations against them in this trial include allegations of “undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the State” (separatism) and even “murder.” These accusationsrelate to their support for protests that mainly took place in cities in southeast Turkey between October 6 and 8, 2014. The politicians have beenheld responsible for all offences allegedly committed over the course of these protests, which were organised against the brutal siege of the Kurdish-majority northern Syrian town of Kobane by the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS). During the protests, 37 people reportedly died.

The evidence against the politicians, on the basis of which Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ are currently detained, consists of two social media postings supporting protests over the Kobane siege sent from the HDP Twitter account, together with the politicians’ nonviolent political speeches, lawful activities and witness statements against them added to the case file years later that raise serious questions of credibility.

The ECtHR determined in three judgments—two pertaining to Demirtaş in November 2018 and December 2020, and one to Yüksekdağ and 12 others in October 2022—that their detention on the basis of speeches and social media postings was a politically motivated move to silence them, “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, the very core of the concept of a democratic society.” The Court found that their rights to liberty, to freedom of expression and to be elected had been violated. The facts forming the basis on which Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ are detained and were prosecuted for in the 2021 mass trial aresubstantially the same as those contained in the proceedings which the ECtHR found to be insufficient grounds for their detention.

“Despite the European Court ruling that the grounds to justify Yüksekdağ and Demirtaş’s detention were insufficient, the Ankara public prosecutor in April 2023 requested their conviction on numerous alleged offences concerning their political speech, which may result in their life imprisonment without parole,” said Temur Shakirov, interim director of the International Commission of Jurists’ Europe and Central Asia Programme. “This underscores the ultimate political motives behind the ongoing case targeting the two and reinforces doubts about the fair administration of justice in the country.”

After Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ’s detentions in November 2016, Turkey held a landmark referendum and several crucial election campaigns. The April 16, 2017 constitutional referendum introduced a system of governance concentrating power in the hands of the President. It was followed by the June 24, 2018 presidential election in which Demirtaş ran as a candidate from his prison cell against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the March 31, 2019 local elections, and, most recently, the May 14-28, 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections.

With two prominent figures of the opposition in detention, the country has been deprived of a significant measure of meaningful democratic debate and fair elections around these crucial campaigns,” said Reyhan Yalçındağ, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “With the March 2024 local elections fast approaching, the Committee of Ministers and the other Council of Europe bodies need to use all available means to ensure the end of the continuing violations of Demirtaş’s and Yüksekdağ’s rights, including their rights to participation in public affairs, which is also a violation of the rights of millions of voters.”

The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, responsible for overseeing member states’ implementation of ECtHR judgements, has issued six decisions and two resolutions calling on Turkey to release Demirtaş from detention. At its December 5-7 session this year, the Committee of Ministers will for the third time examine Turkey’s failure to implement the judgment pertaining to Yüksekdağ and release her from detention.

The four nongovernmental organisations have made a joint submission to the Committee of Ministers asking it to issue a decision in December calling for the release of Yüksekdağ.

Turkey has ignored the Committee’s numerous decisions and interim resolutions calling for Demirtaş’s immediate release. This refusal to comply with Turkey’s international obligations has been repeated in the case of Yüksekdağ,” said Ayşe Bingöl Demir, director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project. “The Committee must intensify its scrutiny against Turkey in relation to these cases without further delay, and this must include the triggering of infringement proceedings, in line with the route rightly followed in the case of the imprisoned rights defender Osman Kavala.”

18 other elected former party officials and mayors from the HDP and an affiliated party, the Democratic Regions Party, are also currently detained. Among them is the prominent former elected mayor of Diyarbakır, GültanKışanak, detained since October 25, 2016, and Sebahat Tuncel, former co-chair of the Democratic Regions Party, detained on November 6, 2016. Kışanak’s pretrial detention has exceeded the legal limit of seven yearsunderTurkish law, notwithstanding that seven years’ pretrial detention is a flagrant violation of international human rights law. The detentions of the politicians are blatantly arbitrary and politically motivated, and those imprisoned should be immediately released, the organisations said.

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