Top court orders release of Kurdish opposition leader in blow to Erdogan

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Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), the main Kurd party of Turkey, speaks during an interview with AFP on April 1, 2015 in Ankara. (AFP)
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Supporters of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) take part in a rally in Istanbul. They are protesting a government crackdown on their movement. (AP)
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Updated 20 June 2020

Top court orders release of Kurdish opposition leader in blow to Erdogan

  • Demirtas — who has been called ‘the Kurdish Obama’ — was a robust challenger to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during Turkey’s June 2015 elections

ANKARA: The Constitutional Court of Turkey announced on Thursday night that it had ordered the release of former presidential candidate and co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas.

The court ruled that Demirtas’ right to liberty had been violated because his detention had exceeded “a reasonable time,” and ordered that compensation of TL50,000 ($7,289) be paid to Demirtas.

The surprise ruling followed several calls from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for the release of Demirtas, who is accused by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — an accusation denied by both Demirtas and the HDP.

The Kurdish leader — who has been in prison since 2016 on terror charges carrying a sentence of up to 142 years — will not be set free immediately though, as he is now being held in relation to a case pertaining to Kurdish protests in October 2014, despite not being named as a suspect in that investigation.

Human rights activists say the court’s Thursday ruling is a tactical move to alleviate mounting pressure from the Council of Europe — a human rights organization of which Turkey is a founding member — over the high-profile case, which is still pending before the ECHR’s Grand Chamber. While the ECHR stated in November 2018 that Demirtas’ detention was not justified, it will not usually issue an official verdict on a case until all avenues of the relevant domestic judicial system have been exhausted.

BACKGROUND

Selahattin Demirtas — who has been called ‘the Kurdish Obama’ — was a robust challenger to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during Turkey’s June 2015 elections.

Demirtas — who has been called ‘the Kurdish Obama’ — was a robust challenger to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during Turkey’s June 2015 elections, managing to extend the HDP’s traditionally limited Kurdish constituency by reaching out to liberal and left-wing Turkish voters, which resulted in the pro-Kurdish party gaining parliamentary representation for the first time.

However, the charismatic leader’s rapid ascent stopped in November 2016 when he was jailed.

“This ruling of the Turkish top court confirmed once again the need to release Demirtas immediately. However, it is unlikely that it will happen soon under today’s circumstances in the judiciary,” Erdal Dogan, a human rights lawyer, told Arab News.

“This case is politically motivated. However, if the ruling government opts for a democratic approach to the Kurdish conflict, it will have to release Demirtas and hundreds of HDP officials. It is a matter of making choices,” he continued, adding that the situation is further complicated for Ankara by the cross-border situations in Syria and Libya and its ongoing standoff with Russia.

“Demirtas should not spend one single minute behind bars but unfortunately his case is related to so many national and international dynamics (that have) to be negotiated,” Dogan said.

Demirtas has been suffering from health issues related to his heart in prison, but Turkey’s recent ruling allowing the release of 90,000 prisoners to ease overcrowding in jails and protect prisoners from the COVID-19 pandemic excluded those jailed over terrorism charges, so he remained incarcerated.

Amnesty International recently launched a campaign for the release of political prisoners in Turkey amid the pandemic, warning that their lives might be at risk highlighting its concerns about the health precautions the Ministry of Justice has put in place during the pandemic.

Andrew Gardner, senior Turkey researcher for Amnesty, told Arab News that the organization is monitoring the situation. A new report by the Human Rights Association has echoed Amnesty’s concerns, saying that conditions in the prisons during the pandemic are worrying.

The Amnesty researcher also noted that it has long been clear that the cases against Demirtas — which Gardner described as “baseless” — are politically motivated and that the government has used them to try and silence him and intimidate his followers.

“The Turkish government is facing increased pressure over its policy of locking up critics — not only Demirtas, but also activist-philanthropist Osman Kavala and many others. After this ruling, the Council of Europe can further question Turkish authorities about why Demirtas is still in prison,” Gardner said.

“It is good to have this verdict, because this case was a total violation of the rights (regarding) pre-trial detention, (combined) with the pandemic that threatens people’s health,” he continued. “The constitutional court should be much more active in these cases. It is disappointing that it took so long to give this ruling. Demirtas should never have been imprisoned.”


‘Sad day for rule of law’ as Turkey passes legal bill

Protesting lawyers take part in a demonstration against a government draft bill on changing the system of bar associations on July 10, 2020, in Ankara. (AFP)
Updated 2 min 39 sec ago

‘Sad day for rule of law’ as Turkey passes legal bill

  • Protesting lawyers say move will politicize judiciary and restrict independence

ANKARA: Lawyers in Turkey stepped up their protests on Saturday after the Turkish parliament passed a controversial law that critics claim dilutes the power of bar associations.

International observers and legal experts have attacked the legislation, saying that it further restricts judicial independence.

Heads of Turkey’s bar associations who have protested in Tunali park in Ankara for several days — sleeping overnight on playground ramps and slides, with blankets provided by colleagues — vowed to continue their public opposition to the legislation.

The law has alarmed legal experts and members of the international community, including Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, who fear that it will politicize the judiciary, limit lawyers’ independence and reduce bar associations’ ability to monitor human rights.

Representatives of 80 bar associations have opposed the plan, and staged nationwide marches and protests in Ankara.

Under the new law, in provinces with over 5,000 lawyers, a group of at least 2,000 lawyers can establish alternative bar associations. This allows for multiple bar associations in cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, where the current bar associations are among the few remaining institutions in Turkey voicing public criticism.

Under the current system, they represent 55 percent of lawyers in Turkey.

The amendment will significantly reduce the nationwide representation of the largest bar associations within the Union of Turkish Bars (TBB), an umbrella body whose board features two delegates from each bar association.

However, with new changes, the number of delegates to sent to the TBB will be cut in favor of rival bar associations that will likely be formed through political affiliations.

Large bar associations will lose influence in decision-making and the election of the umbrella body’s president.

Experts say the move will weaken standards in the legal profession and prevent the the ability of bar associations to uphold human rights commitments in the country.

The CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, will appeal to the Constitutional Court of Turkey for an annulment once the law is published. But even if the court annuls the legislation, bar associations will not be closed since the verdict of the court does not apply retroactively.

Lawyer Mehmet Koksal said that a public backlash against the new law is highly likely.

“Alternative bar associations will be only formed in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir because of their high number of members. They are at the same time the ones who determine the general line of legal system in Turkey contrary to government expectations,” he told Arab News.

However, experts fear that the newly adopted legal changes will undermine the professional ethics and quality of lawyers, and polarize the profession.

“The lawyers will be put under governmental guidance and it will produce a chain effect, because the judges will refrain from giving favorable verdicts in cases where non-partisan bar associations are involved. It will seriously undermine the independence of the lawyers,” Koksal said.

The alternative bar associations will be able to give practicing certificates to attorneys, leading to a decentralized licensing system.

“It is unsurprising that the attorneys will give preference to those who have lower standards in awarding certificates. For the wrongdoings of the attorneys, the bar associations will refrain from opening investigations for fear that they may lose members and be closed,” Koksal added.

Human Rights Watch Turkey Director Emma Sinclair-Webb said the new law was passed without consultation with bar associations and was deliberately rushed through parliament.

“The aim is to be able to get rival government-friendly bar associations set up in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir before the October bar elections, and to determine the result of the Dec. 2020 election of the head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations,” she told Arab News.

“The presidency’s divide and rule project to politicize the institutions that represent the legal profession is another sad day for the rule of law in Turkey,” she added.