Turkey’s ‘Kurdish Obama’ Is Now in Jail

Selahattin Demirtas, who once hoped to challenge Erdogan’s grip on power, finds his political party under attack and himself behind bars.


ANKARA, Turkey — Selahattin Demirtas saw this coming.

“It is possible that in this month, or next month, we will get sent to prison,” the co-head of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) told Foreign Policy while sitting in his Ankara office in October. “They may arrest all of us.” 

On early Friday, Demirtas’s prediction came true. Turkish security forces detained him and the party’s co-chair, as well as 10 other parliamentary deputies, as part of a sweeping investigation of the officials’ links to terrorism. In a potential attempt to limit public protests, Turkey also reportedly blocked access to Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

Demirtas’s arrest is a major blow to a figure who was once a rising star in Turkey’s political scene. In June 2015, he led the HDP in parliamentary elections that saw the party win 13 percent of the vote, its most impressive showing ever. He became one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most prominent critics, making the case for a negotiated resolution to the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and “democratic autonomy,” which would devolve power to local governments.

More broadly, he attempted to transcend his party’s identity as one focused narrowly on Kurdish interests. By building bridges with liberal Turks, and advocating for issues like gay rights and environmentalism, he tried to establish a broad-based, leftist opposition movement to Erdogan. The traditional opposition parties had spent more than a decade getting drubbed by Erdogan at the polls; finally, some in the opposition hoped, an effort was afoot to develop a real alternative.

Those hopes have now been almost entirely crushed. The HDP saw its share of the vote fall in snap elections last November, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), of which Erdogan is a co-founder, regained its parliamentary majority. A resurgence of violence last year between Turkish security forces and the PKK hamstrung the party. Some anti-Erdogan Turks began criticizing it as insufficiently critical of the group, which has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States. Erdogan, meanwhile, described the party’s call for local autonomy as “treason.”

The crackdown on Demirtas and his fellow HDP leaders was set in motion over the summer when, in a move strongly supported by Erdogan, Turkey’s parliament voted to strip HDP deputies of immunity from prosecution. That opened the floodgates of criminal charges filed against HDP leaders, as prosecutors accused them of links to the banned PKK, which has fought a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Demirtas told FP that there were a total of 550 cases against the parliamentarians. He said he was facing a total of 102 cases, which carried with them the combined possibility of two life sentences and 600 years in prison.

The immediate trigger for this week’s arrests was the HDP deputies’ refusal to show up in court after prosecutors called them to testify. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told journalists on Friday that officials are obliged to respond to legal summons and added: “Those who come to power by elections but prefer to embrace terrorism will of course be held accountable by the law.”

Demirtas, however, sees it differently. He told FP that he and other HDP officials made a joint decision not to defend themselves in what they see as a fundamentally rigged proceeding.

“We are not facing a legal process; we are facing a political process,” he said. “Because of that, we won’t go to give defense in the courts. And the courts have to give its decision without our defense.”

In addition to trying to draw attention to what he sees as the political nature of the charges, Demirtas said it would simply be logistically impossible to defend himself in more than 100 cases in courtrooms spread across Turkey. “I would have to give up politics … to give every day and every month to present my defense,” he said.

Demirtas and the other HDP deputies are only the most recent party officials to be detained. The co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, were arrested last month on charges of providing support to the PKK. Turkey has also moved to shutter media outlets sympathetic to the HDP, closing down more than a dozen just last weekend.

In speaking with FP, Demirtas partially attributed the crackdown on the HDP to the government’s ongoing war against the PKK’s Syria affiliate, called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). He said Erdogan believes that if Syrian Kurdish forces carve out an independent state, it will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to attempt the same thing. “If something happens in Syria, they claim, Turkey may become divided. So the AKP is trying by every way to get Syrian Kurds under control,” Demirtas said. “On the other hand, it’s also trying to control Turkish Kurds by violence and by oppression.”

As the conflict worsens, some HDP deputies are wondering whether the party will survive the crackdown.

 “Personally, I think there is a risk that the party will be closed,” Ziya Pir, an HDP deputy who was detained Friday and then released after questioning, told FP in an interview last month. “Because now they collect everything — telephone calls, writings, speeches.”

Pir has been going to the courthouse in Diyarbakir to observe the trials of local HDP officials and says the prosecutors have consistently tried to build a case that the party as a whole is serving as an extension of the PKK.

“I just look and listen at the questioning … and every time they try to make a link between the person who they accuse and the party,” he said. “And at the end, they will say, ‘OK, the HDP party is like this [linked to the PKK] and needs to be closed.’”

Burak Kara/Getty Images

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