Appeals court upholds prison sentence for Demirtaş

A Turkish appeals court has upheld a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence against Selahattin Demirtaş for allegedly insulting the president in the first instance.

Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, imprisoned in Turkey, has failed in his appeal against his conviction for insulting the president. A regional appeals court in Istanbul upheld the verdict in the first instance. Demirtaş was sentenced to three and a half years in prison last year.

The court considered it proven that the 48-year-old former co-chair of the HDP had insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in public and violated his dignity. The accusation concerned Demirtaş's statements regarding the AKP government's behaviour after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. The plane was brought down in the Syrian border area on 24 November 2015. As a result, Moscow imposed far-reaching punitive measures against Ankara, including an import ban on Turkish goods, work bans and sanctions against the tourism industry. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially refused to apologise to Russia for the downing.

A few weeks after the incident, Demirtaş travelled to Moscow with an HDP delegation to hold talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The meeting was planned well in advance, and the content of the talks included the Kurds' fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Demirtaş described the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by the Turkish army as a mistake. "We spoke openly with each other and condemned the government's actions in shooting down the Russian jet," the HDP politician said after the talks with Lavrov.

Arriving at the airport in Ankara a day later, Demirtaş told the press that the conflict that escalated between Russia and Turkey after the jet was shot down was due to the misconduct of the AKP government and that the livelihood of millions of people was at risk as a result. The politician also accused the AKP of "inaction". Many people, workers, students and companies have had the ground pulled out from under them by the Russian sanctions provoked by Turkey. "And what does the government do? Nothing!" said Demirtaş. In response to the shootdown, Moscow unilaterally lifted visa-free travel. The move primarily hit the Turkish tourism industry hard, as about four million Russians travel to Turkey every year. But foreign students, professionals with work permits and import-export companies also suffered.

"We should not confuse criticism with insults and defamation," Demirtaş said when the verdict was announced on 22 March 2021. His defence complained of procedural errors and appealed, which have now been unanimously rejected. Demirtaş can appeal to the Court of Cassation (Yargıtay) as one of Turkey's highest courts in the next instance. His legal counsel did not say whether he plans to do so, but it is likely. This is not the first time Demirtaş has been convicted of insulting public officials. At the end of January, a trial against the Kurdish politician for allegedly insulting former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which had been dragging on since 2017, ended with a prison sentence of just under a year. The prosecution had demanded the maximum sentence of four years and eight months.

In prison despite ECtHR ruling

Selahattin Demirtaş has been in prison for over five years. The then HDP leader was arrested in November 2016 along with nine other HDP MPs, including former co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ. Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), he is not being released. In the main trial, the prosecution accuses him, among other things, of founding and leading a terrorist organisation, terrorist propaganda and incitement of the people. The indictment builds on 31 investigation reports submitted to the Turkish parliament during his time as an MP for the lifting of immunity. If convicted, Demirtaş faces up to 142 years in prison. In the trial surrounding the October 2014 protests against Turkish support for ISIS in the attack on the town of Kobanê in Rojava, Demirtaş is even facing up to 15,000 years in prison.