ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The head of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition on Friday made his first public appearance since his arrest 14 months ago, standing before an Istanbul court on charges of insulting President Tayyip Erdogan.
Several hundred people demonstrated near the courthouse in support of Selahattin Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer and the co-head of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), parliament’s third-largest party.
Demirtas had criticised Erdogan in a speech in December 2015, saying the president had “fluttered from corridor to corridor” during a conference in Paris, hoping to get a picture taken with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Those comments came after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane over Syria, when ties between the countries were at their worst since the end of the Cold War.
Demirtas, who won votes beyond his Kurdish core constituency in recent elections, faces up to four years in jail on the charges of insulting Erdogan. He faces 142 years in a different case on terrorism charges.
The HDP denies authorities’ accusations of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebel group, which has been fighting government forces in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The group is deemed a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and Europe.
The court has not allowed Demirtas to attend hearings for the other cases citing security reasons, and he has refused to take part via video link.
On Friday he gave a brief statement to the court, objecting to the government’s removal of the parliamentary immunity that he enjoyed as a lawmaker, which exempted him from investigation or prison while in office, according to the HDP.
The party described him as smiling and in high spirits. A Reuters reporter at the courthouse was not able to enter the courtroom. The case was adjourned until May 17.
Hundreds of supporters gathered across the street from the courthouse, chanting “Selahattin Demirtas is our pride,” and “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”.
“Our aim is to intimidate the ruling government, to show that HDP has not ended and the people siding with freedom are not gone,” said one of the supporters, who declined to be identified.
Around 100 special police were posted outside the courthouse, armed with tear gas and automatic rifles.
A prosecutor charged that Demirtas’s comments breached “the limits of acceptable criticism,” and were an “unjust attack” on Erdogan’s personal rights.
In addition to Demirtas, nine other HDP members are detained, including its other co-leader, Figen Yuksekdag. They are mostly accused of links to the PKK. All deny the charges.
Editing by David Dolan and Ralph Boulton