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Clashes and condemnation as Turkey throws pro-Kurd leaders behind bars

Leadership of Turkey's largest pro-Kurd party, HDP, are to remain in custody until trial after their arrest in 'terrorism probe'
Turkish riot police officers use tear gas, arrest demonstrators in Ankara (Reuters)

The co-leaders of Turkey's largest pro-Kurd party were behind bars on Friday after they and 10 of their colleagues were arrested by prosecutors in a "terrorism" probe, sparking riots in the capital and beyond and prompting the party to declare the "end of democracy".

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were among 12 MPs from the HDP, or People's Democracy Party, taken into custody after they failed to appear in court voluntarily to answer for alleged links to a Kurdish insurgency led by the PKK.

Demirtas and Yuksekdag were later formally arrested along with their deputy, Idris Baluken, Sirnak MP Leyla Birlik and Diyarbakir MP Nursel Aydogan, meaning they will remain in custody until any future trial is heard. Two others were released without charge.

Mardin MP Gulser Yildirım and Hakkari deputy Selma Irmak were also later arrested on Friday.

The arrests sparked riots as protesters clashed with police in Ankara, Diyarbakir and other areas. Police were seen using tear gas and batons in videos posted on social media, while one video showed officers firing into the air to quell the dissent in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish majority city in Turkey. 

Separately, a car bomb rocked a police station in Diyabakir hours after the arrest of the MPs. Eight people were killed, all Kurds, and more than 100 injured.

The office of Turkey's prime minister said the arrests came because the MPs had failed “to appear in response to summons by prosecutors” in an ongoing terrorism investigation. Their appearance was a "legal requirement", it said. 

But the HDP said the arrests were an orchestrated campaign by the state to shut down the biggest pro-Kurd party in Turkey, and the third-largest in parliament.

"This is a dark day not only for our party but for all of Turkey and the region, as it means the end of democracy in Turkey," it said in a statement.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a senior Turkish politician and honorary party president of the HDP, told Middle East Eye that any hope of return to the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government, which collapsed in July 2015, would become more distant with the arrests.

“This is a coup against parliament," he said, and warned of a "basic rule of politics - violence invites violence. Any government has to pass through this education."

"The prosecutors are acting on behalf of the Justice and Interior Ministry and this is a political attack on all the HDP, it has nothing to do with bringing people to justice,” he said. “This is not how justice works, even in Turkey.”

International condemnation

The move to arrest the HDP leadership was condemned by foreign organisations, already dismayed at the post-coup round-up of tens of thousands of people for alleged links to the PKK and support for Fetthulah Gulen, a US-based preacher and the Turkish government's chief suspect in the attempted putsch.

The EU warned that, although it respected Turkey’s right to combat groups like the PKK, the crackdown on the HDP risked undermining the country’s already fragile democracy.

"The EU is gravely concerned," foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said. "Among those detained are the party's co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, both democratically elected leaders and our trusted and valued interlocutors," she said.

Germany also summoned its envoy to Turkey for talks on the “latest developments” in Turkey, according to a ministry source.

While Ankara "has the right to counter the threat of terrorism and to deal with the bloody coup attempt through the law, that should not serve as a justification to muzzle the opposition or to put them behind bars," the source told AFP.

The US, whose traditionally close relationship with Turkey has been strained in recent months, said it was "deeply troubled" by the arrests.

In addition to state condemnation, Nadia Murad - a Yazidi former slave of Islamic State who was awarded the EU's Sakharov Prize for human rights last month - tweeted for the arrested MPs to be released:

The Turkish government’s hard stance against the HDP began during the run-up to the June 2015 general elections, in which the HDP broke past the 10 percent threshold for the first time, allowing it to enter parliament as a party.

Turkey’s parliament voted in May to revoke MPs' immunity status in a move that many suspect was intended to target the HDP MPs.

On Thursday, prosecutors launched an investigation into Demirtas after he condemned the detention of two mayors of the country's biggest Kurdish city.

Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, co-mayors of Diyarbakir, were taken into custody on Tuesday as part of a "terrorism" probe and accused of having links to the PKK.

The Diyarbakir prosecutor said in a statement that the Demirtas probe would look into whether he insulted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a speech on Thursday.

It will also investigate whether he "incited people to disobey the law", "publicly humiliated the Turkish Republic and the state's judicial institutions" and "praised crime and criminals".

Kurkcu echoed earlier warnings about the "end of democracy" in Turkey and warned that Erdogan's plans to change the constitution to give him more powers would further polarise the situation.

“It has already become a dictatorship and it will only get worse unless all the democratic opposition forces come together and cut all ties with Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for presidential rule," he said.