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Turkey's pro-Kurdish party elects fill-in for jailed leader

Serpil Kemalbay was elected by delegates of the Peoples' Democratic Party to replace the party's jailed co-leader, Figen Yuksekdag
Serpil Kemalbay addresses HDP delegates in Ankara in front of images of the party's jailed leaders (AFP)

Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) replaced its jailed female co-leader Saturday as the party seeks to move forward while its MPs and officials remain imprisoned, accused of links to Kurdish separatists.

Serpil Kemalbay was elected by delegates who convened for a special congress in the capital Ankara, where there was heavy security.

Turkish authorities stripped Kemalbay's predecessor, Figen Yuksekdag, of her parliamentary seat in February in a move related to a 2013 conviction for "terror propaganda," upheld by the top court of appeals in 2016.

Kemalbay's male counterpart, Selahattin Demirtas, also remains imprisoned, together with eight other HDP MPs accused of links to outlawed Kurdish militants.

The charismatic Demirtas, often described as one of a few politicians to match President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's oratory skills, is being held at a prison in Edirne, northwest Turkey.

He has been held in jail since November on charges of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and making terror propaganda on their behalf.

If found guilty in that case, he risks up to 142 years in jail, while Yuksekdag faces up to 83 years behind bars for charges including inciting violence.

However, Demirtas remains a lawmaker for the HDP, Turkey's second largest opposition party.

During the congress, party officials read messages sent from Yuksekdag and Demirtas, which delegates received with great fervour, giving standing ovations.

The HDP supported a "No" vote in last month's referendum on sweeping changes to the country's political system but Erdogan won a narrow victory on creating an executive presidency.

Yuksekdag said the "No" camp had entered a new stage.

"A more determined and successful struggle for peace, political freedoms, freedom of speech and assembly, work security, life and justice has been opened," she said.

HDP spokesman Osman Baydemir read out Demirtas' message, which was met with applause and shouts of "By resisting, resisting, we will win".

In her maiden speech as co-leader, Kemalbay said she was honoured by the election, adding the party would "advance our struggle for democracy and peace".