ISTANBUL - The trial of Kurdish opposition party leader Selahattin Demirtas has started in Ankara. Demirtas is charged with terrorism and has been held for more than a year in pretrial detention. The case is drawing growing international criticism.
Supporters of the jailed Kurdish leader gathered outside Ankara’s Sincan prison, where the Kurdish leader’s trial began Thursday.
In a 500 page indictment, Demirtas is accused of leading a terrorist organization, spreading terrorist propaganda, and inciting hate and crime.
Controversy surrounds the case over the decision to hold the trial in a prison and to allocate a court room that allows only 20 people to watch.
Hasip Kaplan a former parliamentary deputy of Demirtas’s HDP party, speaking outside the prison, voiced anger over the handling of the hearing.
"I have one thing to say to those who had unlawfully lifted the immunity of our political leader and who now cannot even bring him to a court near the parliament, but instead try him, within barbed fences after 399 day’s of detention," Kaplan said.
Tried in absentia
The Kurdish leader is being tried in absentia after the court denied his right to attend, insisting he use a video link from the prison in which he is being held — an option he refused.
The trial has become a focal point of criticism over the government’s crackdown after last year’s failed coup and the introduction of emergency rule. Demirtas is widely seen as one of the most charismatic and effective political opponents to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the past year, more than 11,000 HDP officials have been detained, including dozens of elected mayors and nine parliamentary deputies. Party co-leader Figen Yuksekdag appeared in court Wednesday on similar terrorism charges.
Rights groups criticize move
Human rights groups nationally and internationally claim there is little evidence to justify the case against Demirtas.
Senior researcher Emma Sinclair Webb of the U.S. based Human Rights Watch says the case is alarming .
"In general, we do not see any evidence of criminal activity. It is all about his speeches, and for this he faces multi charges," she said. "The sentence altogether when you stack up all the charges comes to around 142 years."
Ankara also has faced heavy criticism over the Kurdish leader being held for more than a year in pre-trial detention.
But the Turkish government strongly defends the prosecution and judiciary, claiming the HDP, Turkey's second largest opposition party, is a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgent group the PKK.
Demirtas denies all charges against him. The trial has adjourned until February and the judges ruled Demirtas will remain in prison.