Selahattin Demirtaş Puts the Turkish State on Trial

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Is it possible to shame a state who proudly celebrates their lack of moral conscience? The answer is being sought currently, as on Tuesday, the Erdoğan regime in Turkey commenced their illegitimate show trial of Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). To his credit, Demirtaş mounted a powerful defense in response to the unfounded allegations by the Turkish state, which were part of the wider 48th session of the so-called ‘Kobanê trial’ at Ankara’s 22nd Heavy Penal Court on the Sincan Prison Campus.

The latest trial came only days after Demirtaş lost his father, whose health had severely deteriorated following a car accident he suffered while attempting to visit his son in prison. However, in a demonstration of his commitment to the liberation of the oppressed Kurdish nation, Demirtaş refused to attend his father’s funeral and opted instead to continue his fight for justice and human rights from his prison cell.

For a century, the Turkish Republic has presented one of the most brutal and violent examples of a regime that desires the total erasure of ethnic minorities, building atop their cruel foundation of the Armenian and Greek Genocides. Similarly, its responses towards Kurds have included decades of ethnic cleansing, thousands of villages erased across the map of occupied Northern Kurdistan, pogroms, imprisonments, executions, cultural erasure, and persecution of anything resembling Kurdishness.

However, modern Turkey can no longer hide its decades of oppression and sadism towards the Kurds, as trials are now publicized, arrests and attacks on Kurdish civilians are shared live across social media, and anonymous statements or leaks often occur. Even in prison, Demirtaş’s voice continues to raise hopes for peace and freedom for the millions of Kurds who continue to find their voices restricted and their lives reduced to second-class citizens in increasingly tyrannical Turkey. Demirtaş’s trial is a tribunal against the entire Kurdish nation, along with its hopes and aspirations for basic human rights within Turkey.

A courtroom sketch of Demirtaş giving his legal defense, since the trial is not allowed to be televised.

Demirtaş’s Defense

Demirtaş’s poetic and eloquent defense has turned the trials on their head and instead placed the spotlight on the Turkish regime’s ongoing, vast, and never-ending violence towards Kurds not only across occupied Northern Kurdistan in ‘Turkey’, but also across the border both in Rojava (north ‘Syria’) and Southern Kurdistan in ‘Iraq’. During the proceedings, Demirtaş accused the trials of being a frame-up case and called the accusations against him “pure and unadulterated” lies. He went on to state that:

“For years, we have been trying to convey the truth while others attempt to tell lies. We know that lies cannot be retracted. We are aware that the perpetrators of these lies derive a masochistic pleasure. Without succumbing, we will maintain our stance, turning our pains into honey. We will once again expose the historical lies.”

Emphasizing the transformative power of politics, Demirtaş remarked that: “In today’s world, where human relationships are fragile, the real concept that defines relationships is liquid modernity.” Demirtaş further stated that, “With politics rendered powerless, people lack trust in it because politics cannot deliver what people expect.” He raised questions such as, “Why has politics collapsed in Turkey? Who holds the power, and who is keeping us imprisoned? What force is at play?” Demirtaş further highlighted the ongoing illegal detention of other politicians, such as Can Atalay, who has remained in detention despite recently being elected Parliamentarian.

Demirtaş’s Challenge to Erdoğan

Demirtaş is a Kurdish human rights lawyer, writer, politician, and former Parliamentarian. Demirtaş became the co-chair of the Peace and Democratic Party (BDP) and was directly involved in the historical peace process negotiations with the Turkish state. He was one of the members of the BDP party who visited imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan on Imrali Island, who himself has been held for 24 years in inhumane isolation for believing that Kurds deserve human dignity.

Demirtaş gained increasing popularity as the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish and left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) between 2014-2018, along with Figen Yüksekdağ. Prior to his participation in politics, Demirtaş was a member of the executive committee of the Amed (Diyarbakir) branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD). Eventually, Demirtaş replaced the revered Osman Baydemir as the IHD chair when Baydemir was elected as the mayor of Amed. Demirtaş focused his time as the chair of the IHD on addressing Turkey’s long tradition of violence against political activists.

Demirtaş’s political platform placed heavy emphasis on gender equality and promoting women’s participation in municipal and parliamentary elections. As a result of this pro-women platform by HDP and Demirtaş, several women including Gültan Kisanak and Februniye Akyol were elected as co-Mayors of Amed and Mêrdîn respectively.

Demirtaş was arrested on November 4th, 2016, along with his co-chair Figen Yüksekdag, and 12 other HDP members of Parliament. A wide public outcry across Turkey and internationally claimed that Erdoğan was implementing such measures in a bid to shut down the third largest and most influential political party in the country.

The Turkish state’s reasons for Demirtaş’s arrest involved allegations concerning a statement he made on October 6th, 2014, in support of anti-regime protests in relation to Turkey’s support for ISIS during their siege of Kobanê. Erdoğan accused him of inciting the mass uprisings of Kurds in occupied Northern Kurdistan in protest of Turkey’s complacency, as innocent Kurdish civilians were attacked and slaughtered by ISIS while Turkish tanks watched idly nearby.

In the initial hearings, Demirtaş accused the court of working to enforce Erdoğan’s political aspirations and stated that:

“I will never accept to be a subject of the judges and prosecutors who wait hand and foot while the dignity of the judicial system is trampled. I don’t mean to disrespect you personally. However, I won’t be a puppet in this trumped-up judicial theater, which is started by the order of Erdoğan who has a really shady and questionable personal background. I won’t answer your questions. I don’t think that any legal procedure that will be carried out by you could be just and lawful. Even my detention is done illegally.”

By early January 2017, Demirtaş was facing an absurd Kafkaesque 142-year prison sentence as Turkish prosecutors concocted more than 100 charges against him. By September 2018, Demirtaş was sentenced to an additional 4 years and 8 months on account of an earlier Newroz speech made during March 2013. Essentially, each time a European court rules that Turkey needs to release Demirtaş because of fictitious charges, the Turkish state merely makes up another false charge and says their ruling does not cover his current offenses.

However, Erdoğan has far more to fear from Demirtaş than simply inciting Kurdish discontent against the Turkish regime. Back in 2014, as the Kurds across Rojava were gaining international acclaim and support for their historic resistance against an ever-expanding ISIS, Demirtaş was the presidential candidate for the HDP during the decisive election. Much to the shock of the far-right Turkish regime and political parties, Demirtaş came in third in the elections and gathered over 13.1% of the vote following the June 2015 parliamentary elections. Despite all the hurdles placed in his way, by November, he had again gathered 10.7% of votes in a snap election and managed to come in 4th. Despite his arrest in November 2016, Demirtaş continued to gather even more popularity and ran for the 2018 presidential elections while in prison.

These wins sent shockwaves across an increasingly chauvinistic and anti-Kurdish Turkish society, which has caricatured the Kurds as backward, illiterate, and uncivilized ‘mountain Turks.’ For decades, consecutive Turkish governments weaponized xenophobia against the Kurds for their own political gain, utilizing anti-Kurdish propaganda that increased racist and exclusionary values within a hyper-nationalist Turkish society.

As Turkey became the world’s largest jailer of journalists and political opponents, human rights organizations widely condemned Erdoğan’s enduring oppression of dissenting voices and his ongoing silencing of pro-democracy and human rights activists. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a strong condemnation, stating that the timing of Demirtaş’s ongoing detention appears to coincide suspiciously with presidential elections and his political agenda. The ECHR demanded Demirtaş’s immediate release and a compensation of 25,000 Euros, which was promptly ignored by the Turkish court, who deemed the decree as non-binding.

Undeterred, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in June 2023 pressed the Erdoğan government to comply with the ECHR decree, yet both Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ remain behind bars. On the seventh anniversary of the politician’s wrongful imprisonment in 2023, four major human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project, collectively called for the immediate release of all Kurdish prisoners, but to no avail.

Kurdish grandmothers demonstrate in Istanbul for the freedom of political prisoner Selahattin Demirtaş.

Demirtaş’s Legacy

Demirtaş may very well spend the rest of his life languishing behind bars, just as another Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan already has for two and a half decades. The Turkish regime, under the authoritarian control of Erdoğan has increasingly moved towards greater cruelty, racism, and violence against minorities such as the Kurds, inside and outside of their borders. Yet, Demirtaş’s potent political and democratic legacy serves as a formidable reminder of the unwavering capacity of the Kurds to continue demanding justice, peace, and human rights even as they remain tortured in prison cells and bombed across the region.

Along with Öcalan, Demirtaş is the alternative voice of a democratic and free Kurdish nation of occupied Northern Kurdistan in Turkey. It is no coincidence then that both Öcalan and Demirtaş and hundreds of other Kurdish leaders remain in prison, facing decades of exclusion from society and politics. Voices such as theirs represent an increasingly diminishing collective calling for human rights in Turkey. But as the farcical show trials against Kurdish politicians continue, the international community must continue demanding the release of all Kurdish political prisoners.

Nobody should act like these proceedings are normal, reputable, or legitimate judicial procedures. They are merely symbolic theatrical productions, crafted for an increasingly fascistic domestic audience that takes glee in watching Kurdish suffering. Sadly, this is why they are mostly immune to the insightful soliloquies of Demirtaş or the profound philosophical ruminations of Öcalan, because they are not ready to hear or read the uncomfortable truth about what Turkey really is and always has been.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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