A Political Hostage in Turkey: Selahattin Demirtas

By Azad F. Kurd


On November 4th, 2016, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas was taken from his house in Diyarbakir to Edirne High Security Prison. He was held in Edirne prison for 460 days before appearing in front of a judge.

Demirtas was born during the year of 1973, in Elazig, Turkey. He is an active Kurdish politician who identifies as a ‘political hostage’ on the basis of his due process. Married to Basak Demirtas, he is the father of two girls, Delal and Dilda. He graduated from the Ankara University Faculty of Law and began his career as a freelance lawyer upon graduation. Succeeding as a freelance lawyer, he later became an executive committee member of the Human Rights Association’s (IHD) Diyarbakir branch. Demirtas served as the chair of the organization until he joined the Democratic Society Party (DTP).

By taking a position in the DTP, Demirtas made his debut in politics in 2007. While at DTP, he was able to get elected to the twenty-third Turkish Parliament as an independent candidate representing the people of Diyarbakir and serving as Parliamentary Chief Officer for his party. Approximately two years later, the DTP was shut down by the Turkish Supreme Court, causing the DTP MPs’ transfer to the newly established Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

During the BDP’s first congress meeting in 2010, Demirtas along with Gultan Kisanak were elected as the party’s co-chairs. The co-chair system enables both a man and woman to be the leaders of a political party concurrently and it was adapted by the Kurdish political movement in Turkey – like the BDP – in order to establish representation based on gender equality. In 2011, Demirtas ran as an independent candidate in the Kurdish dominant city of Hakkari with the support of BDP and got elected to the twenty-fourth Turkish Parliament for the second time.

Demirtas’ next advancement would be to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2014 as co-chair, along with Figen Yuksekdag, who was also arrested on the same night as Demirtas. Founded in 2012, The HDP was a collaborative establishment of various political organizations of which included the BDP and Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK). The HDP identifies as a pro-minority party in Turkey. However, critics often accuse the HDP of being solely a Kurdish party.

As the HDP’s candidate for the 2014 Presidential Elections, Demirtas came in third place with 9.78% of the votes, competing against the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Many were surprised by Demirtas’ third place success because neither a Kurdish candidate nor party had received such high vote percentage in the history of Turkish elections. This indicated a substantial amount of hope for the Kurds and other minorities in Turkey because of the threshold, which has caused the minority parties to run for an election with independent candidates instead of participating as a political party in order to gain seats in the parliament.

History was to be made by the HDP on June 7th, 2015. Then Turkish President Erdogan dared the Kurdish lawmakers to participate in the general election as a political party, instead of bringing forth independent candidates to join the parliament. In a press release, the HDP announced their plan of participation in the election as a whole party instead of backing independent candidates. The question of the 2015 general election, from all political sides in Turkey was, “Will the HDP pass the threshold?” When asked, Demirtas replied with, “We will definitely pass the threshold and I expect around 12-13%.” Appearing on a live TV show, Demirtas stated that if the HDP fails to pass the threshold, he would resign on the night of the election. His predictions were flawless. On the night of June 7th, the HDP secured 13.12% of the general election votes, shocking the country in a first-ever situation.

The success of the HDP would bring intolerable consequences. When the ruling AKP party lost majority in the parliament and was unable to form government for the first time in 13 years, series of horrific events took place post-June 7thelections. President Erdogan publicly denounced the peace talks with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), refused to form a coalition government and called for a snap election to take place on November 1st,2015. The timetable between June until November was a bloodbath for Turkey. On October 10th, 2015, the HDP along with many human rights advocates lead a peace rally in Ankara calling on the government to resume peace talks in order to end the violence all over the country. The peace rally was attacked by an ISIS suicide bomber causing 103 casualties, making the rally become the deadliest attack in Turkish history. 

The horrific events were used by President Erdogan and his party (AKP) to vilify the HDP. The November 1stsnap elections resulted in the loss of millions of voters from the HDP due to countless ad-attacks, bombardment of Kurdish dominant cities (Diyarbakir, Sirnak, Mardin, Hakkari), attacks on offices, election campaigns and censorship by the state-controlled media. In five months the HDP’s votes dropped from 13.12% to 10.75%. The AKP gained an additional 4.8 million votes in comparison to the June 7thelections, allowing the party to form a government. It is important to note that there were a series of profound allegations directed against the AKP for implementing fraud during election day. 

Following the snap elections, President Erdogan publicly advocated for the prosecution of HDP lawmakers, accusing them of being terrorists and supporting the PKK, even though it was Erdogan and his administration who initiated and maintained contact with the PKK. According to Mr. Demirtas, the AKP government officials delivered a letter from the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to executives of the HDP to pursue them into their own agenda, which resulted in rejection by the HDP executives. 

On May 20th, 2016, member of parliaments’ immunities – mostly HDP – were lifted with 373 “yes” votes. The HDP condemned the lifting of immunities as an act against the will of the people, stating that the AKP’s motive is to terminate MPs from the parliament who were elected by the people. In the process, the CHP as the main opposition party received serious criticism due to their support in voting alongside the AKP. The lifting of immunities eventually led to the arrests and imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtas, Figen Yuksekdag, Idris Baluken, Caglar Demirel, Selma Irmak, Gulser Yildirim, Abdullah Zeydan, Burcu Celik, Sirri Sureyya Onder and thousands of HDP members. The HDP has started a “Let’s Write a Letter” project on their website where adherents can send letters to the imprisoned MPs. 

An intriguing fact of Demirtas’ arrest is that the prosecutor Ugur Ozcan, who prepared Demirtas’ case is convicted on the charges of organizing a coup to overthrow the Turkish government and being a member of the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO). 

The Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey allowed Demirtas to participate in the presidential election of 2018 as HDP’s candidate. Demirtas is the first presidential candidate in Turkey that ran for an election behind bars. He led his campaign via social media and held a rally over a phone call with his family where millions of people tuned in to listen to his words. Demirtas did not have the same campaigning opportunities as the other candidates but he still managed to collect 8.4% of the votes.

On November 20th, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the pre-trial detention of Demirtas must end, calling for his release. Even though Turkey is part of the Council of Europe, where states agree to follow rulings of the ECHR, President Erdogan made a statement saying that, “The ECHR ruling is not binding, we will make a counter-move and finish the job.” Along with the ECHR, the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the United States Congress has recognized Selahattin Demirtas being arrested and sentenced on politically motivated terrorism charges. 

Strikingly, the 19thheavy penal court in Ankara held the 11thhearing on Demirtas’ case and ruled unanimously for his conditional release on September 2nd, 2019. He remains imprisoned due to a prior-approved sentence of 4 years and 8 months. On September 11th, the lawyers of Demirtas made a submission for parole since he has served most of his sentence. 

The ruling by the Turkish court is sought as a strategic move because of an ECHR case on September 18th. When the Ankara court – which previously denied an appeal for Demirtas’ release – found the ECHR’s ruling unbinding, the lawyers of Demirtas re-submitted the case for further examination and obtained a court date for September 18th

Besides his political characteristics, Demirtas is also a talented artist and author. He has released drawings conducted from his cell via social media and published two books called “Seher” (Dawn), and “Devran” (Era, fate). His “Dawn” book has been published in English by Sarah Jessica Parker’s SJP for Hogarth and is available on Amazon.

Selahattin Demirtas has been imprisoned for 2 years and 10 months. Currently, he continues his imprisonment in Edirne High Security Prison.

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