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Turkey hands Kurdish leaders heavy sentences, dimming hopes of democratic change

Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), and others were sentenced to a combined 375 years in Turkish prisons. Demirtas has remained in prison since 2016.
A boy waves a flag of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan as tens of thousands of Kurds gather during a rally of the DTP.

A Turkish court on Thursday sentenced 108 defendants, most of them Kurdish, to a combined 375 years in prison over deadly riots in 2014 that erupted when Kurds in the country’s southeast took to the streets over the government’s perceived support for the Islamic State as it besieged the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Selahattin Demirtas, Turkey’s most-popular Kurdish politician in modern times, was sentenced to more than 40 years on charges that he had instigated the unrest, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people, most of them supporters of Demirtas and his party. He has remained in prison since 2016 despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2020 that deemed his continued detention unlawful. A Turkish court rebuffed his retrial application for a third time on Wednesday.

Thursday’s sentences drew a barrage of angry reactions and dashed burgeoning hopes that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would re-embrace democratic reforms after years of unremitting pressure placed on his opponents, civil society and the media. “A dark stain was once again applied to Turkey’s legal history,” Tuncer Bakirhan, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, said as lawmakers from the party held up photographs of their sentenced colleagues in the chamber and banged on tables and lecterns in protest. “Justice has once again been butchered. No matter what you decide, your power won’t suffice to prevent the struggle for the rule of law of justice,” Cengiz Candar, former journalist and DEM deputy for the Kurds’ informal capital, Diyarbakir, fumed in a post on X.

Lawyers for the defense stormed out of the room as the presiding judge read out the verdicts. The defendants themselves had boycotted the hearing to signal their contempt.

Ahmet Turk, a prominent veteran of the Kurdish movement who was elected mayor of the southeastern city of Mardin in the March 31 local polls — in which the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) pulled ahead of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the first time — was among those sentenced today. Turk was given 10 years for membership in a terrorist organization, a euphemism for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The bulk of Thursday’s convictions were based on defendants’ alleged connections to the group that has been fighting for varying forms of Kurdish self-rule since 1984. 

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