Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 February 2020

Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party replaces jailed chief

'Kurdish Obama' was detained in November 2016 with a dozen other Kurdish MPs

The HDP has described the operation against the YPG as an "invasion" that targets Kurds "as a people" but Ankara views the YPG as a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed PKK which has fought the Turkish state for decades. Delil Souleiman / AFP
The HDP has described the operation against the YPG as an "invasion" that targets Kurds "as a people" but Ankara views the YPG as a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed PKK which has fought the Turkish state for decades. Delil Souleiman / AFP

Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party elected two new leaders on Sunday, one of whom will replace its charismatic jailed co-chief Selahattin Demirtas, ahead of elections next year.

Mr Demirtas, the best-known face of the left-wing Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), has been behind bars since November 2016, detained on terrorism charges, and faces a possible 142-year prison sentence. In January, he appeared before an Istanbul court on separate charges of insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Party delegates elected Former MP Sezai Temelli, 54, to replace Mr Demirtas while Pervin Buldan, 50, was elected co-chair.

Ms Buldan, a serving MP and deputy parliament speaker, replaces Serpil Kemalbay, who herself took over from another incarcerated former leader, Figen Yuksekdag.

The party says it always has a woman and man in leadership positions in the interests of equality.

There was heavy security at the congress in Ankara where the venue was filled with several thousand HDP supporters waving the party's symbol of a tree.

The new leaders take over a party isolated in parliament where many of its beliefs will likely clash with Mr Erdogan.

The HDP has regularly accused the president of "authoritarianism", many of its MPs and members have been detained, and it opposes Turkey's current offensive against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria.

The HDP has described the operation against the People's Protection Units (YPG) as an "invasion" that targets Kurds "as a people", but Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has for decades fought the Turkish state.

The YPG militia was the principal ally of the US in the fight against ISIL in Syria.

Mr Temelli and Ms Buldan will attempt to lead the party to a fresh start ahead of general and presidential elections in November 2019, aware they are operating in an increasingly restrictive political climate.

On Thursday, MEPs in the European parliament criticised the "deterioration of freedoms and fundamental rights and the rule of law in Turkey".

It called on Ankara to scrap emergency powers brought in after the failed coup in July 2016, which members said were being used to stifle "legitimate and peaceful opposition" and a free press.

Since the attempted coup, more than 140,000 people have been suspended or sacked over alleged links to coup-plotters.

More than 160 media outlets have also been closed.


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Mr Demirtas, known by some as the "Kurdish Obama" came to prominence after leading the HDP into parliament for the first time in June 2015.

Analysts say his success was because he appealed to voters outside the Kurdish minority including non-Kurdish leftists and liberals.

But Mr Demirtas and Ms Yuksekdag were among a dozen HDP MPs detained in November 2016 as part of a clampdown that followed the attempted coup. Nine HDP politicians remain in jail.

Ms Yuksekdag was stripped of her politician status in February 2017 and stepped down as co-leader in May last year.

Last month, Mr Demirtas, 44, said he would step down from his post, fearing he would likely remain imprisoned.

"Even if Mr Demirtas … is or isn't the co-leader, he is an important figure in political life and he will continue to be involved in politics under any condition," said HDP's spokesman Ayhan Bilgen.

Mr Demirtas faces multiple legal cases including accusations that he has links to the PKK, which is also blacklisted as a terrorist group by Ankara's western allies.

The government accuses the HDP of being a political extension of the PKK, but the party denies any direct links to the group and calls for a political solution to the conflict raging in Turkey's southeast.

Since entering parliament under Mr Demirtas' leadership, the HDP has come under heavy pressure with seven of its politicians losing their MP status. The party had 59 MPs in late 2015.

"This atmosphere [of pressure] is so widespread, so systematic, so rooted, that we are conscious that we have to do politics under these conditions," said Mr Bilgen, who spent eight months in pre-trial detention last year over alleged PKK links.

The party says about 3,300 HDP members have been arrested since the collapse of a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK in July 2015.

Since Turkey's offensive in Syria against the YPG began in January, there have been more arrests. The HDP says 368 of its members had been detained over their opposition to the fighting.

The authorities accuse many of them of spreading "terrorist propaganda".

On Friday arrest warrants were also issued for 17 people, including Ms Kemalbay, over calls for protests against Ankara's Syria operation, state media reported.

Updated: February 11, 2018 08:36 PM



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