March 21, 2021

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to ensure victory in the next election by "illegally" trying to ban Turkey's pro-Kurdish party, its former leader told AFP from jail on Sunday.

The Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) -- the third largest group in the parliament -- has been under pressure for years over alleged links to Kurdish militants who have been waging a deadly insurgency against the state since 1984.

Dozens of HDP lawmakers and leaders have been arrested and jailed on terror and other charges which they deny and rights groups view as politically motivated.

Former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas -- a two-time challenger to Erdogan in presidential elections -- has been behind bars since 2016 despite calls from the European Court of Human Rights for his release.

The party now faces the risk of being shut down after Turkey's top public prosecutor accused it of links to the Kurdish militants in a filing with the Constitutional Court on Wednesday.

"The main reason they are trying to shut down the HDP is to let the People's Alliance win the upcoming election," now scheduled for 2023, Demirtas said in a written response to questions from AFP.

He was referring to the electoral alliance between Erdogan's ruling AKP and its ultra-nationalist junior partner, the MHP, who are slowly losing support in most opinion polls.

"This reason alone is enough to make the case (against the HDP) illegal and illegitimate," he said from the prison in Edirne, northwestern Turkey, where he is being held.

"I hope the Constitutional Court will not give credence to this irrational behaviour and will reject the case."

- 'Immature democracy'-

Turkey's Western allies have roundly condemned the attempt to dissolve the HDP.

The United States said it would "further undermine" democracy while the European Union warned it "would violate the rights of millions of voters".

Demirtas called the prosecution of his party a symbol of Turkey's "immature democracy and repressive mentality".

Turkey has in the past shut down other pro-Kurdish parties for alleged links to Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants whose insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The PKK is recognised as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies. The indictment before the Constitutional Court accuses the HDP of having "organic" ties to the militants.

Demirtas rejected the charges.

"No matter what kind of obstacles are put in our way, our politics will continue to grow," he said.

"The only thing I am sure of is that we will not give up on the right to democratic politics and governance."

But he added in a self-critical note that the party should consider whether it was making any political mistakes.

"I want to say independent from the closure case that we should review our own shortcomings through self-criticism," he said.

"We should better explain ourselves to the society. We should do this no matter whether (the party) is shut down or not."

- 'Keep on fighting' -

Demirtas risks up to 142 years in prison if convicted of links to the PKK and other charges now before the courts.

The indictment put before the Constitutional Court last week accuses the HDP of being a threat to the "indivisible integrity of the state" and seeks to ban 687 party members -- including Demirtas -- from engaging in politics for five years.

The bans appear to be aimed at making sure current members are unable to form a new party under a different name should the HDP be shut down.

Asked about his political future, Demirtas said he was already "de facto politically banned" due to his detention.

But "even if I am not a member of a political party or I am not a candidate, I will keep on fighting together with the people, shoulder to shoulder," he said.