Turkish presidential candidate runs campaign from jail

A prison cell is an unlikely campaign headquarters. Selahattin Demirtas, who claims he has been falsely imprisoned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is running for president from prison with a promise to bring peace and democracy back to the nation. 

Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party/AP
Selahattin Demirtas, former co-leader of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, poses for a photo in prison in Turkey. The pro-Kurdish opposition leader, who is fighting terrorism-related charges, is trying to get his message out to voters in any way he can in a state under harsh control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Of all the candidates in Turkey's presidential election, Selahattin Demirtas has one major disadvantage: He's in jail.

The pro-Kurdish opposition leader, who is fighting terrorism-related charges, is trying to get his message out in any way he can. He used a 10-minute telephone call he is allowed with his wife to broadcast an election speech while his lawyers carry back and forth journalists' questions and his responses from his high-security prison.

On Friday, he'll be tweeting by proxy, responding to public questions posted on social media.

Mr. Demirtas, the former co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP, is one of five candidates running against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the June 24 presidential election. Turkey will also hold a parliamentary election on the same day.

The 45-year old former human rights lawyer was arrested and incarcerated in 2016 for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants. Although there are about 20 other cases against him, he remains jailed on charges of being a leader of a terrorist organization, engaging in terrorist propaganda and inciting enmity by calling for protests. He faces a 142-year sentence if convicted. This past month, a court rejected an appeal for his release pending the outcome of the trial.

Demirtas, who denies the accusations, was allowed to run in the presidential race because he has yet to be convicted. It wasn't clear, however, if or how he would be able to take up office in the unlikely event that he is elected. Opinion polls put Erdogan several points ahead of his closest opponent but short of the minimum 50 percent required to win in the first round of the presidential election.

With the majority of media outlets under Erdogan's control, all opposition candidates are struggling to get their voices heard. Demirtas touched on the added difficulty of running a campaign from prison in a written response to questions from The Associated Press relayed to him by lawyers.

"Thousands of my friends, the women, the young will voluntarily lead my campaign in my name," he said from his prison in Edirne in northwestern Turkey. "I am being held in a cell as a political hostage.... It is clear that it won't be an equal and fair election race." The government denies the claims.

If elected, Demirtas said his priority would be to enact a new constitution for Turkey, underscoring personal freedoms, the independence of the courts, and a return to parliamentary democracy. He would seek a peaceful solution to the three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey, he said.

On Wednesday, he read out his "election rally speech" during a bi-weekly telephone call he is allowed with his wife, Basak. A video released on Twitter showed Basak and other family members listening to Demirtas joke about the odd campaigning method and later call for votes to help end "anti-democratic" practices in Turkey.

Demirtas quipped: "I am the only candidate who can make propaganda to his wife on the phone."

"President Selo!" family members chanted at the end of speech. "Selo" is short for Selahattin.

The HDP nominated Demirtas despite his imprisonment because he remains the party's most popular figure. He had run against Erdogan in the country's first direct presidential election in 2014, garnering 9.7 percent of the vote. He also led his party to parliament in two general elections during 2015, attracting left-wing and liberal votes and enlarging his party's appeal beyond Turkey's mainly Kurdish populated regions.

Analysts say that Erdogan's ruling party could be denied a parliamentary majority if the HDP again manages to surpass a 10 percent threshold and win parliamentary seats.

In election rallies, Erdogan has accused Demirtas of being a "terrorist" holding him responsible for dozens of deaths that occurred in anti-government protests in southeastern Turkey in 2014. Erdogan also accused another opposition candidate who visited Demirtas in prison of "supporting terror."

Eight other HDP lawmakers and nearly 4,700 HDP members are also imprisoned on terror-related charges.

Commenting on his prison conditions, Demirtas told the AP that he shares a cell with former HDP legislator Abdullah Zeydan, but has no contact with other inmates.

"I can only relay messages through my lawyers and letters. I have no other opportunity," he said. "I am a political hostage for 1 1/2 years without a fair trial."

The politician said he spends his days reading books and newspapers and watching the news on television. He is allowed weekly one-hour visits by his family and four hours to exercise. He has also written a collection of short stories that was published this past year.

"We are trying to keep our determination and morale strong despite this environment of isolation," he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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