State Department Spokesperson John Kirby decried the decision of Turkish prosecutors to seek an extraordinarily long jail term for the imprisoned leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas.
On Tuesday, prosecutors in Diyarbakir announced that they would seek a 142-year jail term for the 43-year old politician, whose considerable political skills once led observers to compare him to US President Barack Obama
At a press briefing two days after the announcement of the prosecutors’ decision, Kirby explained Washington’s view. “We’re deeply concerned that the prosecutors requested the sentence of 142 years in prison for the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP,” he said.
Kirby’s statement came in response to a question from Kurdistan24, asking about the US position on the sentencing request and noting that a European Union (EU) official had denounced it as “outrageous.”
Kirby also suggested that Ankara’s human rights abuses were directed far beyond the Kurdish population. “We’re also concerned by the aggressive use of judicial inquiries to curb free speech and political discourse in Turkey,” he said.
Alluding to Turkey’s charges against Demirtas, Kirby added, “Again, we would note the importance of transparency and respect for due process as Turkey investigates allegations related to the dissemination of terrorist propaganda.”
Demirtas is charged with being a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, and others, including the US and EU, have declared a terrorist organization, and of spreading propaganda on the PKK’s behalf.
However, neither the US nor EU consider the HDP to be a terrorist organization. Rather, they view the HDP as a legitimate political voice for Turkey’s Kurds. With 59 seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, the HDP is Turkey’s second largest opposition party.
Kirby concluded his criticism of Ankara, saying, “The United States continues to support freedom of expression in Turkey, and we oppose any action to encroach on the right of free speech.”
Some 150 journalists have been arrested in Turkey, and a similar number of media outlets have been closed since July.
Thursday was the Obama administration’s last full day in office, and Kirby’s criticisms were the Obama administration’s last public words on matters related to Turkey.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have been deteriorating over the past two years. These tensions arose with Ankara’s harsh treatment of its Kurdish population after the ceasefire with the PKK collapsed in the summer of 2015.
But the real turning point came a year later, after last July’s failed coup attempt, when the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded with an extensive purge of the civil service and the arrest of nearly 50,000 Turks—at least 200 of whom are HDP members.
The US long refrained from expressing much criticism, largely because Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is a key facility in the fight against IS. But that changed in early November when the Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of Ankara protecting “the rule of law and basic freedoms” at the American-Turkish Council’s Annual Conference.
With Blinken’s speech, the US changed its declaratory policy toward Turkey—but not more.
Kirby said the US would continue to “closely” follow Turkey’s treatment of the imprisoned HDP leader. Clearly, the Obama administration is no longer in a position to do so. But it is, perhaps, better to say such words than saying nothing at all.
Editing by Delovan Barwari