Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party elected a new co-leader on Saturday to replace Figen Yuksekdag, who has been in jail on terrorism charges since November and was stripped of her parliamentary status three months ago.
At a Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) congress held amid tight security, Serpil Kemalbay was chosen as joint leader, alongside Selahattin Demirtas, who is also in prison over terrorism-related charges but remains a member of parliament.
In a statement from his jail cell in north-west Turkey, Demirtas called for the HDP to prepare “a plan to fight for democracy and peace” in the face of a “political purge”.
“We are experiencing the virtual shutdown of all democratic political channels,” he said in a statement read out at the congress to applause from delegates.
“But whatever happens … the HDP will not abandon democratic politics, it will insist on non-violent methods to find a solution to political problems,” he said.
Photos of 10 jailed HDP deputies, including Demirtas and Yuksekdag, were displayed on the congress stage. Their arrest handicapped the second-largest opposition party before April’s referendum in which Turks approved constitutional changes sharply boosting President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.
The HDP, which opposed the political overhaul, says as many as 5,000 of its members have been detained as part of a crackdown which rights groups say targets dissent.
Prosecutors want Demirtas jailed for 142 years and Yuksekdag for up to 83 years on charges of terrorist group propaganda. Demirtas was sentenced in February for “insulting the Turkish people, the government and state institutions”.
Their arrests, along with tens of thousands of others since an abortive putsch in July, drew international condemnation.
The government says the HDP is an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast for more than three decades.
The HDP denies direct links to the PKK, deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union.