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Turkish opposition MPs sit in jail as president seeks more power

Twenty-nine MPs were arrested in November as Erdogan set out plans for more power. Many will be in jail when the nation votes on his wishes
HDP MPs hold copies of a pro-Kurdish newspaper in a June 2016 protest over media censorship (AFP)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - Her voice crackling through the microphone, but with an expression of defiance clearly visible on the prison video, Caglar Demirel spoke from a distance of 1,000km to a panel of three judges in a heavily-guarded court room here. 

"I've not been shown any evidence. I reject the accusations. This case is the result of political decisions," she declared.

Demirel is in Kandira prison near Istanbul, a long way from her constituency in Diyarbakir, a largely Kurdish city in the southeast of the country. 

A Kurd, she is one of 29 MPs who were arrested last November in what government opponents say is an apparent bid by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to silence opposition before a national referendum on 16 April. 

The result will decide whether Turkey changes to a vastly more authoritarian system with the abolition of the prime minister's job and a president who will control the budget, nominate ministers as well as senior judges and dissolve Parliament whenever he likes. If passed, it will allow Erdogan to stay in power until 2029.

'I was handcuffed behind my back on a three-and-a-half hour helicopter flight without a seat belt' - Leyla Birlik, an MP for the HDP

But the clampdown on the MPs is also part of Erdogan's tactics since the 2015 collapse of the ceasefire with the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) which has been fighting for regional autonomy for decades.

The imprisoned MPs belong to the People's Democratic Party (HDP) which won 59 seats in the last elections in November 2015 with support not just from Kurds. Some face prison terms, if convicted, of more than two or three decades. 

Fifteen have been released but 14 remain in jail.

Scores of elected HDP mayors have also been jailed or sacked. They have been replaced by trustees appointed by the central government in Ankara. 

Prosecutors are charging the elected officials with terrorist offences, and being linked to the PKK.

The MPs' immunity from prosecution was lifted last spring before the failed coup attempt in July. Activists for the HDP say this shows Erdogan was already busy curtailing civil liberties in his desire to change the constitution. 

Widening purge 

Since the coup, Erdogan has widened his repressive activity, mounting an extensive purge of Turkey's public officials, from judges and police chiefs to army officers and civil servants. 

He claims the coup was mounted by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Islamist. Gulen is more anti-Kurdish than Erdogan, criticising him for authorising talks with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, between 2013 and 2015. Yet Erdogan often lumps the Gulenists and the HDP together as security threats.

The hearing in the Diyarbakir court was held to consider Demirel's request for release on bail before trial in April. 

Demirel told the judges: "There's nothing lawful about detaining MPs but why have other MPs not had their immunity lifted? The HDP defends all minorities in Turkey, cultural diversity and fundamental rights. Thanks to it, it's the first time there have been so many women in parliament. We are on trial because of our fight for equality."

Beside her mother and several friends and colleagues, the public gallery contained a delegation from the European Union Turkey Civic Commission, which included present and former members of the European Parliament as well as academics, lawyers and journalists. 

The judge was aware of their presence and allowed Demirel to make political declarations for almost an hour. 

Another international observer who was in the gallery and has attended many Turkish trials said this was common. 

A team of three defence lawyers sat in the Diyarbakir courtroom but when a fourth lawyer, sitting in the prison room beside Demirel started to speak, the chief judge objected. 

Only three lawyers were permitted, he said, standing up in anger when the lawyers challenged his ruling. 

At the end of the hearing, the court rejected Demirel's bail application. Keeping her another two months in prison until the trial in April was not long enough to affect her parliamentary duties, the chief judge declared.

No regrets 

One woman HDP MP who has been released pending trial is Leyla Birlik, who represents the town of Sirnak. 

Although she faces 37 years in prison if convicted, she has no regrets about giving up her work as a kindergarten teacher and taking up the cause of freedom as a politician, she told MEE with the calm determination that characterises so many HDP activists. 

She spent two and a half months in prison, initially in solitary confinement. The worst thing was the journey to the prison in Istanbul. 

"I was handcuffed behind my back on a three-and-a-half hour helicopter flight without a seat belt," she said.

Another MP from Sirnak is Ferhat Encu. The EU-Turkey Civic Commission delegation met him in Istanbul the day after he had been released from a prison in Istanbul. 

The water from the tap was yellow and for the first three days there was nothing else to drink - Ferhat Encu, describing conditions in prison

"Leyla Birlik had been let out and there was a lot of pressure not to let me out too, but they decided to release me anyway," he told members of the delegation.

He described the grim conditions of detention. He was kept alone in a cell on a small corridor, and the two other cells on the same corridor were emptied so that he had no-one to communicate with. 

"I was allowed to keep my own clothes and coat but it was very cold. The water from the tap was yellow and for the first three days there was nothing else to drink," he said. 

"There was a small courtyard to exercise in. Once every two weeks you were allowed one phone call."

In an extraordinarily cumbersome concession which offered the prison authorities a chance to make money, prisoners were permitted to buy a television set. 

"When I was leaving, they told me, 'leave it behind for your friends'," he said. 

"But I responded, 'You'll sell it, not give it to them, so I'm going to keep it'. Now they're going to deliver it to me at home."

It seemed a strange system, but as it turns out, academic. 

When Encu flew home to Sirnak the next day he was re-arrested at the airport on arrival. The prosecutor had appealed against his release and the judges gave way.

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