ANKARA (Reuters) - The jailed leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition went on trial on Thursday, 13 months after his arrest on terrorism-related charges, facing up to 142 years in prison in a case closely watched by rights groups and Western governments.
Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), was not allowed to appear in court for security reasons and refused to take part via video link. A state prosecutor demanded he remain in jail for trial.
A charismatic former human rights lawyer who was once dubbed the “Kurdish Obama” by some in the international, Demirtas was arrested on Nov. 4 last year, one of more than a dozen HDP lawmakers who were arrested in a crackdown following last year’s attempted coup.
A crowd of several hundred gathered to show support for Demirtas in snowy weather outside the court near the capital Ankara. They joined hands and danced around small fires, singing songs in Kurdish. “Demirtas is our honor,” they chanted.
Demirtas and other detained HDP members are mostly accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has conducted a decades-old insurgency in which 40,000 people have been killed and which is deemed a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe. All deny the charges.
The HDP is the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament.
Some 150,000 people have been sacked or suspended and roughly 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial since the failed coup. Rights groups and some Western allies say Erdogan has used the putsch as a pretext to quash dissent. The HDP says as many as 5,000 of its members have been detained.
Erdogan says such measures were necessary given the danger represented by the putsch in which 250 people were killed.
Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan