Turkish courts reject requests to free Kurdish lawmakers

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey Mon Dec 16, 2013 3:58pm EST

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DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish courts on Monday rejected bids by five Kurdish lawmakers to be released from lengthy detention while on trial, a move that could undermine confidence in a fragile peace process with Kurdish militants.

The decision by the courts in Diyarbakir, the regional center of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, came despite the country's top court ruling this month that the long-term detention of another deputy pending trial was unconstitutional.

Gulser Yildirim and Ibrahim Ayhan, members of parliament for the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), were detained in 2010, charged with links to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and are still held pending the completion of the trials.

Three other BDP deputies held while being tried on similar charges also had their bids to be released quashed by a second court in Diyarbakir.

The Turkish state began peace talks with the PKK - designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union - more than a year ago to try to end a three-decade conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.

The release of prisoners accused of links to the PKK has been a long-standing Kurdish demand.

The BDP described the court rulings as a "legal scandal" and said the judiciary was showing an openly hostile attitude towards the deputies.

"It is a political decision, a decision which disregards completely the public will and the right to conduct democratic politics," the party's joint leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Gultan Kisanak said in a statement.

The party demanded the immediate release of the jailed deputies, among thousands being prosecuted in related court cases, and denounced "political prosecutions".

"In town squares our people will give their response to this decision which disregards their will in the best possible way," the statement said.

Four members of the newly founded Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which plans to contest elections next year in coalition with the BDP, said they were going on hunger strike from Tuesday in protest at the court decisions.

The government says the judiciary acts independently in such cases.

SIMMERING TENSIONS

A ceasefire with the PKK has largely held since March and the government has proposed a package of limited reforms aimed at bolstering democracy, but PKK commanders have warned of renewed violence unless the process progresses.

Four Turkish soldiers were briefly seized by PKK militants this month and there have been violent clashes between security forces and protesters, exacerbated after the killing of two demonstrators in Yuksekova near the Iranian border 10 days ago.

"This decision will be a serious problem for the peace process, tensions will increase and the people will not accept it," deputy BDP leader Meral Danis Bestas told Reuters.

Hopes for the Kurdish parliamentarians' release had been heightened when a deputy from another opposition party was freed last week after the Constitutional Court ruled his pre-trial detention had violated his rights.

Mustafa Balbay of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) pledged his oath in parliament last Tuesday after he was released pending appeal from nearly five years in prison on conspiracy charges.

He was among 275 defendants including an ex-military chief, retired officers, academics, journalists and politicians jailed in August over an alleged plot to overthrow Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alison Williams)

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