Turkey: Release Unlawfully Jailed Opposition Politician

European Human Rights Court Calls for Selahattin Demirtaş’ Release

(Istanbul) – Turkey must ensure the immediate release from detention of an opposition politician, Selahattin Demirtaş, following a European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber ruling on December 22, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Grand Chamber ruled that in initially detaining Demirtaş and then prolonging his detention for over four years, the Turkish government pursued an ulterior purpose of preventing him from carrying out his political activities, depriving voters of their elected representative, and “stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate: the very core of the concept of a democratic society.” The Grand Chamber ordered Demirtaş’ immediate release.

“The European Court of Human Rights’ very strong judgment confirms that the Turkish government has kept Selahattin Demirtaş behind bars for political reasons,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The judgment demonstrates how the Erdogan presidency weaponizes detention and prosecution to remove opponents from the political scene and threatens free democratic debate.”

Demirtaş, former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) political opposition to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been held in Edirne F-type prison in western Turkey since November 4, 2016.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was ruling on an appeal from a November 20, 2018 judgment by one of the court’s regular chambers in Demirtaş’ case. Both chambers found that Turkey had violated the European Convention rights protected by articles 5.3 (right to liberty regarding prolongation of detention) and Article 3 Protocol 1 (the right to free and fair elections), and violated Article 18 (misuse of limitations on rights in the Convention).

However, the Grand Chamber went further in its condemnation of how Turkey has acted and found a lack of reasonable suspicion to justify Demirtaş’ initial detention (violating Article 5.1). The Grand Chamber deepened and elaborated the chamber’s earlier reasoning on how Demirtas’ detention had been pursued for political ends (Article 18 in conjunction with Article 5), and found that his right to freedom of expression had been violated (Article 10).

Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 in November published a detailed statement on the chronology of Demirtaş’ detention and prosecution over four years. It focused on the main ongoing trial against him on terrorism charges, for which he faces a possible 142-year prison term if convicted, as well a separate terrorism investigation opened against him in September 2019 in the scope of which he is currently detained.

The December 22 Grand Chamber judgment is notable for its reference to Demirtaş’ current detention since September 20, 2019, in the scope of an investigation into deadly protests that took place in southeast Turkey from October 6 through 8, 2014. Determining that the same “acts and incidents” had also formed the basis on which Demirtaş had been detained up until September 2, 2019, and for which he is already on trial in the main ongoing case against him, the Grand Chamber described this as “a new legal classification” of the same facts. In other words, the Grand Chamber pointed out that Demirtaş had been detained on the basis of a second investigation into his alleged role in incidents for which he is already on trial and was previously detained.

The Grand Chamber concluded, “The continuation of his pre-trial detention, on grounds pertaining to the same factual context would entail a prolongation of the violation of his rights as well as a breach of the obligation … to abide by the Court’s judgment…. Accordingly, it considers that the respondent State must take all necessary measures to secure the immediate release of the applicant.”

“In calling for Demirtaş’ immediate release, the Grand Chamber judgment also states that any failure to do so will prolong the violation of his rights and breach Turkey’s obligation to implement the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights,” Williamson said. “The Turkish government must act without delay and cannot disregard this judgment with specious arguments that it doesn’t apply to Demirtaş’ current detention.”