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Ally of Turkey's Erdogan calls for release of two high-profile prisoners

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A close ally of Turkey’s president called on Thursday for a prominent Kurdish politician and a philanthropist, arrested in the wake of an attempted coup in 2016, to be freed from jail.

The comments by former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc come a week after President Tayyip Erodogan said the country was was entering a new period and promised parliament would prioritise judicial reform next year.

Rights activists, Turkey’s Western allies and some opposition parties have called for the release of Selahattin Demirtas and Osman Kavala, on grounds that their continued detention in separate cases pointed towards political pressure on the judiciary.

The independence of the judiciary has been debated in Turkey, especially since a crackdown after the attempted coup, which led to tens of thousands of people, including journalists, being jailed.

Critics say the government used the crackdown as pretext to quash dissent. Erdogan and his AK Party say courts are independent and that the measures were needed to address security risks.

Despite previous court orders for their release, Demirtas, former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in prison for more than four years while Kavala, a philanthropist accused of helping organise the attempted coup, has been jailed for more than three years.

In an interview with broadcaster Haberturk, Arinc said he was against prolonging Demirtas’s incarceration, and that he was shocked by Kavala’s continued detention.

“Selahattin Demirtas has been in jail for three to four years. The arrest should not be turned into a punishment,” said Arinc, who is currently a member of the presidency’s High Advisory Board.

The charges against Demirtas are related to his role in violent protests against the Turkish army’s inaction during a militant attack on the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani.

Arinc added: “I’m shocked by the fact that (Kavala) is still detained. He needs to be released. When I read these indictments, I said even a child would not write this.”

The comments were criticised by the nationalist MHP allies of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP). Together the AKP and MHP hold a majority in parliament.

Yildiray Cicek, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli’s press advisor, responded to Arinc by describing Demirtas as a murderer and a terrorist who is a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“May God damn the terrorist that you were impressed by,” Cicek wrote on Twitter.

If convicted, Demirtas faces up to 142 years in jail on terrorism charges. Kavala, now jailed on espionage charges related to the 2016 failed coup, was earlier acquitted from charges related to anti-government protests in 2013.

Separately, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported on Friday that detention warrants had been issued for 101 people including lawyers and doctors as part of what they called terrorism-related investigations. An intelligence source said that the operation was focused in southeastern Turkey, where Kurdish militants are active. [L8N2I61C8]

Reporting by Birsen Altayli; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen, Editing by Ece Toksabay, Jonathan Spicer & Simon Cameron-Moore

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