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Turkish police arrest pro-Kurdish HDP chiefs as part of 'terrorism probe'

Party marks 'end of democracy' and protests break out in Ankara, after Selahattin Demirtas and fellow MPs arrested in Diyarbakir
Demonstrators scuffle with riot police in Ankara during a protest against the arrest of MPs from the HDP party (Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – The two co-chairpeople of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were among 12 members arrested in the early hours of Friday as part of a "terrorism probe" of the country's second-biggest opposition party.

Selahattin Demirtas said on Twitter early on Friday that police had arrived at his house in Diyarbakir to arrest him. Social media websites, including Twitter and Facebook, were blocked in Turkey soon after.

Translation: Police officials are at the door of my house in Diyarbakir with a warrant to detain me by force

Demirtas was taken to court later on Friday, where the state prosecutor sought his formal arrest. The government said all were arrested because they had refused to appear in court voluntarily to answer questions in an ongoing terrorism investigation. Their appearance was a "legal requirement", it said. 

The Cumhuriyet newspaper reported that Demirtas told the prosecutor before he got to court: “Our struggle for democracy will win sooner or later. Erdogan himself and this obsolete regime will change. I have no requests or expectations from you. Only my people can question me regarding my political activities."

The HDP said the arrests marked the "end of democracy" in Turkey. 

"The goal of these measures is to shut down the third largest party 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."

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), spoke out against the arrests on Friday and warned that the country was being dragged down a very dangerous path.

“We are against the imprisonment of intellectuals, politicians, scientists and journalists regardless of their views. If you defend democracy then you will defend [the principle of] those who come through elections will be removed in the same way,” said Kilicdaroglu.

Deadly car bomb rocks Diyarbakir after pro-Kurd MPs arrested

Meanwhile, the HDP said on Twitter that the house of the party’s co-chairwoman, Figen Yuksekdag, was also being searched by police. Yuksekdag was later taken into custody at her home in Ankara.

Local media police had raided the HDP's headquarters in Ankara.

The arrests sparked large protests in the capital and beyond. One video, posted on Twitter, apparently showed police firing into the air to disperse the crowds in Diyarbakir. The video has not been verified. 

Turkish authorities, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, have alleged that the HDP is a political extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara designates as a terrorist group.

Turkey's justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, said the arrests were legal and part of the arraignment process.

“An invitation is sent. They don’t go. What option is then left? The option to bring them by force,” Bozdag was reported as saying. 

In September a court in Diyarbakir had arraigned eight HDP MPs for the first time since parliamentary immunities were lifted.

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.

The 10 other HDP members arrested were Ferhat Encu, Leyla Birlik, Selma Irmak, Abdullah Zeydan, Idris Baluken, Nursel Aydogan, Ziya Pir, Sirri Sureyya Onder, Gulser Yildirim and Imam Tascier.  

On Thursday, prosecutors had 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 the southeastern city 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 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".

In a speech outside the Diyarbakir town hall, Demirtas had called on the prosecutor to prove the mayors' "terror links".

Access to social media services like Twitter and Facebook became unavailable in Turkey soon after Demirtas’s tweet (Reuters)

"No one can accuse our municipalities of giving support to weapons, terror and violence... If you can prove a penny went [to the outlawed PKK], let's see it. These are all lies," he said.

Anli and Kisanak are accused of making speeches in support of the PKK, which is also designated a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US.

They are also alleged to have allowed the use of municipal vehicles for funerals of PKK members.

"Until our municipality leaders can return to work, there will be resistance, there will be a struggle," Demirtas vowed, according to a written copy of his speech from the HDP.

Demirtas said the two mayors had not supported terrorism, and he accused Turkey of doing so by "nourishing" the Islamic State group and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Ankara strongly denies such claims.

Demirtas, a lawyer, also criticised the public prosecutor. "We are against those prosecutors acting with the palace perspective," he said, referring indirectly to Erdogan. "What kind of prosecutor are you? No one acts more unlawfully than you," he added.

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