Erdogan’s Most Charismatic Rival Challenges Him, From Jail


EDIRNE, Turkey — A prominent Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas once helped Turkey’s leader come close to ending the decades-old conflict with Kurdish militants that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Today, Mr. Demirtas is in prison, where he has been for more than 20 months on 100 charges ranging from terrorism to insulting that same leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been barred from the mainstream media.

Yet all of that did not stop him from running for the presidency in Turkey’s recent elections — and finishing third.

Now that Mr. Erdogan has won the June 24 election, the chances that Mr. Demirtas will be released from prison are dimming. Mr. Erdogan is amassing power in a new presidential system — allowing him to exert control in nearly every aspect of public life — and has effectively sidelined those who challenge him.

Mr. Demirtas and his supporters say the charges against him are political, aimed at crushing his pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P.

That tactic appears to have failed, even as Mr. Demirtas’s own hopes have diminished. The party cleared the 10 percent threshold needed to win a place in Parliament, securing 67 seats in the newly expanded 600-member legislature.

The result represented the party’s third successive electoral success since 2015, when it first won seats in Parliament, and showed that Mr. Demirtas’s vision of peace and democracy in Turkey still resonates with Kurds, as well as with some liberals, young people and minority voters.

“Under these circumstances it is a great success that H.D.P. has a place in Parliament,” he said in a message posted on Twitter the day after the election. It was one in a series of notes passed along to his lawyers for posting, his only way of communicating regularly with supporters.

“Whatever my circumstances are,” he added, “I want everybody to know that I will continue the struggle without being discouraged.”

Members of the opposition alliance against Mr. Erdogan had called for the release of Mr. Demirtas, 45, a former human rights lawyer, but he faces potential life imprisonment if convicted of just some of the charges against him.

Mr. Erdogan has labeled the Peoples’ Democratic Party a separatist organization, called for a swift resolution to Mr. Demirtas’s trial, and even suggested that he would sign the death penalty back into law if Parliament passed it.

Every week, Mr. Demirtas’s wife, Basak, 41, travels the length of the country and back — about 2,000 miles — to talk to her husband through a window in the high-security prison at Edirne in western Turkey.

Once a month, the family is allowed to meet in a room. Ms. Demirtas, a schoolteacher, limits her daughters, 12 and 14, to monthly visits because the trip is so grueling.

Childhood sweethearts, the couple grew up in the warren of small streets and ancient monuments of Sur, a neighborhood inside the old walled city of Diyarbakir. The imposing black basalt city walls that date from the Byzantine era encircle the old city like a massive fortress on a hill above the Tigris River.

But the Sur neighborhood is more like an empty parking lot today. The houses have been razed, and the few mosques and historical buildings left are surrounded by empty stretches of rough ground.

Mr. Erdogan came to power in 2002 offering to make peace with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for nearly three decades. He came close to achieving that with the help of Mr. Demirtas, whose peaceful activists worked as mediators with the insurgents.

But in 2015 the peace talks broke down and both sides returned to violence. Activists took to the streets, and for 18 months the Turkish government conducted punitive security operations in 30 Kurdish cities, including Diyarbakir, raising the conflict to a level of urban strife never seen before in Turkey.

A United Nations report estimates that around 2,000 people were killed in that period, many of them civilians, while 355,000 Kurds were displaced.

Ms. Demirtas described how government bombing would wake the family up in their apartment across town.

“One night it was so bad I thought they were bombing all of Diyarbakir,” she said. “Can you imagine that we could hear it from 20 kilometers away?”

The Turkish government has blamed Mr. Demirtas and his party for encouraging people to resist the government in the cities, along with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

Mr. Demirtas and his followers insist that they espoused only peaceful, democratic means. They accuse the government of waging the military campaign because of the party’s surprising success at the polls.

Mr. Demirtas was detained in October 2016. Police officers came for him at 1:30 a.m., though he had spent the previous day alone in their apartment while his wife was at work.

“I could not count them — there were 200 or more,” his wife said. “In this block, for 500 meters up to my sister’s house, it was all police, special forces with masks.”

“I always say he was not detained, Selahattin was kidnapped,” she said.

The Turkish authorities placed Mr. Demirtas in a prison at the opposite end of the country from his home as “punishment to the family,” Ms. Demirtas said.

“It is hard, but thankfully we have the means,” she said. “I know a mother who could not visit her daughter for a year.”

As many as 5,000 members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, including nine members of Parliament and 50 mayors, have been detained in the government crackdown over the last two years.

Mr. Demirtas, sometimes called the Kurdish Barack Obama for his inspiring speech, lifted the party and his people in the grim aftermath, touring the regions and offering humor and optimism.

“The connection between him and the people was this side of him — the humor,” his wife said.

Even in prison, she said, he maintained his spirit. “He did not in any aspect get desperate,” Ms. Demirtas said. “So people raised their hope.”

Mr. Demirtas campaigned at one remove, using his weekly phone call home to record a speech that his party then distributed online.

He was allowed a single appearance on state television, where he offered hope while also warning of hardship.

“There is a serious opportunity ahead of us before entering an obscure dark tunnel,” Mr. Demirtas said. “We will evaluate this opportunity together, and you will see that we will pull our country from the edge of a cliff.”

His wife remains fiercely hopeful, too. “I strongly believe that when there is a fair and independent judiciary,” Ms. Demirtas said, “he will be acquitted from all charges.”

Source : Nytimes