Turkey’s imprisonment of opposition leader found to have been for the purpose of stifling democracy


Re: Selahattin Demirtas v Turkey (No. 2) (App. no. 14305/17)

The European Court of Human Rights has found that the pre-trial detention of Selahatin Demirtaş, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and member of the Turkish National Assembly violated ECHR, arts 5(3) and 18, and art 3 of Protocol 1. In particular, it found beyond reasonable doubt that the predominant purpose of the detention, during two crucial political campaigns – the Presidential election and the referendum on what the Court described as the most significant amendment to the Constitution of Turkey since the proclamation of the Republic in 1923 –  was to stifle pluralism in Turkey and to limit freedom of political debate at the very core of democracy and so breached art 18.

This case was also the first opportunity for the Court to consider whether pre-trial detention of an opposition politician violates the right to free elections. The Court held that although the Convention does not prohibit pre-trial detention  of a member of or candidate for Parliament per se, it may do so, taking into account the absence of safeguards against arbitrariness, whether domestic courts have shown that they have weighed up the interests of the person concerned and of society against the administration of justice in ordering pre-trial detention, the duration of the detention and its consequences. In this case, given that the detention prevented Mr Demirtaş from taking part in the activities of the National Assembly and that his detention had been for over 23 months, this gave rise to a violation of the right to free elections under art 3 of Protocol No 1.

The Court ordered the applicant’s immediate release.

Paul Skinner was instructed by ARTICLE 19 and Human Rights Watch who have intervened in this and 11 other similar pending cases.