Turkish court hands pro-Kurdish politicians lengthy sentences over deadly protests

Diyarbakir, Turkey / Washington — A Turkish court gave several lengthy prison sentences to pro-Kurdish politicians for instigating protests in southeastern Turkey in 2014 when the Islamic State group attacked the Syrian border town of Kobani.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the former co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on Thursday received the longest sentences among the 108 defendants, 18 of whom had been in pretrial detention.

Demirtas was sentenced to 42 years for a total of 47 crimes, including “disrupting the unity and the integrity of the state,” while Yuksekdag received just over 30 years in prison for “attempts to challenge the unity of the state, of inciting criminal acts, and of engaging in propaganda on behalf of a terror organization.”

The trial stemmed from the 2014 Kobani protests, in which hundreds of pro-Kurdish protesters took to the streets in predominantly Kurdish provinces of Turkey over the government’s inaction toward IS militants who were advancing to capture Kobani in October 2014.

HDP, which initiated the call for protests, demanded the opening of a corridor to Kobani through Turkey so that military aid from other parts of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan could reach the IS-besieged town.

During the protests, in which 37 people died and 761 people were injured, clashes occurred between the security forces and protesters and between the Islamist Kurdish groups and protesters. HDP later called for de-escalation.

At the time of the protests, Ankara was involved in a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terror organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. However, the peace process ended in 2015, and Ankara accused the HDP in connection with the deaths in the 2014 protests. The party denies any involvement.


The first hearing in the Kobani trial was held in 2021. In the more than 3,000-page indictment, senior HDP members were listed as defendants and charged with 29 offenses, including “homicide and harming the unity of the state.”

In the end, 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges and 24 defendants were convicted. The other 72 defendants at large are to be tried in the future.

The defendants’ lawyers and the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, the HDP’s successor, view the trial as political. Lawyer Nahit Eren, the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and a member of the legal team, told VOA Turkish that they would appeal the verdict.

On Friday, Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc said, “There is no place for calls for violence in democracies.”

“Therefore, in this sense, it is a decision made by our independent and impartial judiciary. This is the decision of the first level court, there are the first and second level of appeal processes. We will wait for the result of these processes together,” he added.

Turkish Deputy Minister of Interior Bulent Turan noted that there were acquittals and sentences in the verdict.

“Although it did not please some people, justice was served,” Turan said in a post on X.

Following the verdict on Thursday, local governors imposed a four-day ban on protests in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Siirt, Tunceli and Batman. On Friday, police officers did not let DEM Party members gather for a demonstration in Diyarbakir but allowed them to make a media statement.


Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday that the trial was “manifestly political and unjust.”

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yuksekdag and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest move in a campaign of persecution that has robbed mainly Kurdish voters of their chosen representatives, undermined the democratic process and criminalized lawful political speech,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in the statement.

The convictions of pro-Kurdish politicians come at a time when “normalization” between the ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition is a hot topic on the Turkish political agenda.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Ozgur Ozel on May 2, and both leaders have been vocal about ending Turkey’s polarized political environment.

Some experts think that the convictions are causing the Kurdish public to question the statements on normalization.

“While the normalization is talked about so much, the fact that such a normalization was not reflected in the judiciary will cause serious damage to the Kurdish public,” Roj Girasun, the director of Diyarbakir-based Rawest Research, told VOA Turkish.

“Is this final verdict a postponement of normalization or a complete shelving? It is too early to answer,” Girasun said.

Another expert and political scientist, Vedat Kacal, thinks that the verdict is a bureaucratic move to try to discourage Kurdish voters from hoping for a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey through elections.

“[The verdict] can be interpreted as a psychological method of pushing Kurdish voters back into the narrow patterns of the Kurdish right by making them despair about the ballot box and the future of Turkish politics,” Kacal told VOA Turkish.

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