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European Court of Human Rights orders Turkey to release pro-Kurdish leader

The court ruled that Selahittin Demirtas' pre-trial detention was 'stifling pluralism' and politically motivated
Women hold pictures of Selahatin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), as they celebrate the results of the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections (AFP)

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey must release from jail one of the leaders of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), as his imprisonment was aimed at "stifling pluralism" and "limiting freedom of political debate".

Selahittin Demirtas, who was arrested on 4 November 2016 under suspicion of links to a "terrorist" organisation, appealed to Europe's top rights court over his arrest after an appeal to the Turkish Constitutional Court failed to yield any results.

He has since been held in pre-trial detention and faces up to 142 years imprisonment if convicted. He denies all charges.

In September, he was sentenced to four years and eight months in jail for "carrying out terrorist propaganda" in a speech in 2013.

The new ruling, released on Tuesday, said the court accepted that Demirtas had been arrested and detained on “reasonable suspicion” of having committed a criminal offence.

"However, having regard to the reasons given by the national courts, the court found that the judicial authorities had extended Mr Demirtas’s detention on grounds that could not be regarded as 'sufficient' to justify its duration," the report stated.

This continuing unlawfulness must come to an end

- HDP

It said that the extension of Demirtas' detention "pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which was at the very core of the concept of a democratic society".

"The court, therefore, held, unanimously, that the respondent state was to take all necessary measures to put an end to the applicant’s pre-trial detention."

The court, of which Turkey is a signatory, also ordered Turkey to pay Demirtas 10,000 euros ($11,492) in damages as well as 15,000 euros ($17,144) towards his legal costs.

Rulings are binding on member states, and Turkey has in the past usually implemented its findings. It was not clear, however, whether this judgement would be implemented.

Demirtas ran as the HDP's candidate in the 24 June presidential elections from prison, coming in third with 8.4 percent of the vote, while the HDP won 65 seats in parliament. The election saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who traditionally vie with the HDP for Kurdish votes, lose its parliamentary majority.

'Will of millions'

The Turkish government has accused the HDP of being linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with whom the state has fought a guerrilla war since 1984 that has seen more than 40,000 people killed.

A ceasefire and peace process took place after 2013, but in July 2015 it collapsed and violence returned to the country's Kurdish-majority southeast.

Armed Kurdish groups fought battles in the streets with the Turkish army in towns and cities across the province. Since July 2015, the International Crisis Group has assessed that 4,218 people have been killed in fighting, largely armed fighters and security officials. At least 465 civilians have also been killed.

Although the HDP called for an end to violence on both sides, the party was accused of being a front for the PKK and hundreds of party members - including MPs, mayors and local councillors - were arrested.

In May 2016, the Turkish parliament - including most MPs from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)  - voted to strip MPs with outstanding prosecutions of immunity, a move largely seen as targeting the HDP.

Since then both the party's leaders in parliament and several other MPs have been detained.

The HDP welcomed the ECHR ruling in a statement on its Twitter feed.

"This continuing unlawfulness must come to an end," the party said.

"ECHR's ruling constitutes a lesson in jurisdiction and also requires the release of elected MPs who represent the will of millions of people."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismissed the ruling, calling it non-binding.

"The decision does not bind us," he said, speaking to MPs in parliament. "We will counter it and finish what we're doing."

However, the spokesperson for the Council of Europe, Daniel Holtgen, hit back on Twitter pointing out that "under Article 46 of the Convention all member states are bound by the rulings of the Court."