Nov 4, 2016 7:03 PM

US, EU question Turkey's detention of pro-Kurdish lawmakers

The Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Friday detained 12 pro-Kurdish members of Parliament for questioning in terror-related probes, drawing sharp concern from the United States and the European Union, who feared the move hurts Turkey's democracy.

A car bombing later hit Turkey's largest Kurdish city, killing nine people. Authorities blamed the attack on Kurdish militants but the Islamic State group later claimed responsibility.

The co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP, were among those rounded up in the middle of the night. Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were ordered held in custody pending trial on terror-related charges along with seven other legislators. The courts released three others on condition they report regularly to authorities.

The private Dogan News Agency said the two were taken to a maximum security prison in the northwestern city of Kocaeli.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, expressed concern about the arrests on Twitter, saying she had called a meeting of EU ambassadors in Ankara. Governments in Norway, Sweden and Demark summoned their Turkish ambassadors to explain the arrests.

In Washington, both the White House and the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the detentions. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the government was "deeply disturbed" by the arrests, warning that suppressing fundamental freedoms was not an antidote to terrorism.

State Department John Kirby condemned the car bomb in Diyarbakir but also expressed "deep concern" over the detentions, reminding that "when democracies pursue legal action against elected representatives, they must do so in a manner that reinforces the public's confidence in the rule of law."

Hours after the overnight detentions, there was a large explosion in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, near the riot police building. Two police officers and seven civilians were killed, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said up to 100 people were wounded, though most were released after treatment.

Yildirim also said one of the assailants was "caught dead," but did not elaborate.

It was not immediately known if the attack was in direct response to the legislators' detentions. The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group reported late Friday that the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq news agancy.

The Diyarbakir governor's office said the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, claimed the attack, which Anadolu said was carried out with a minibus laden with a ton of explosives.

The blast caused a large crater near the police building and damaged buildings and businesses nearby. Television footage showed people walking among glass and other debris near buildings with windows blown out. Authorities imposed a temporary news blackout after the explosion, barring reports that could lead to public "fear, panic or chaos" and images showing the explosion.

Turkey has been plagued by a series of deadly bomb attacks in the past 18 months, carried out by Kurdish militants or Islamic State group extremists.

The PKK has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state and is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its allies. A fragile cease-fire collapsed in 2015 and at least 700 state security personnel and thousands of Kurdish militants have been killed since then, according to Anadolu.

Officials said the pro-Kurdish lawmakers were detained for not appearing in court to testify in terrorism-related investigations. The government accuses the HDP — the third largest party in Turkey's parliament with over five million votes in the last election — of being the political arm of the PKK, an accusation the party rejects.

An Interior Ministry statement said 15 detention warrants were issued by public prosecutors in five mainly Kurdish provinces. Two of the legislators were abroad, and authorities were still searching for one other.

"The kind of detentions of democratically elected members of parliament we are seeing in Turkey today is an assault on the right to political representation and participation for millions of voters and defies fundamental principles of any country that claims to be democratic and based on rule of law and human rights," said Human Rights Watch's Turkey director, Emma Sinclair-Webb.

HDP lawmaker Adem Geveri described the detentions as a "political genocide operation," telling The Associated Press that they "officially put an end to the functioning of Parliament in an anti-democratic and unlawful way."

"Now with the HDP removed from the political equation, they will go to an early election and establish an authoritarian Turkey without the HDP, without any democratic opposition," Geveri added.

Main opposition Republican People's Party Chair Kemal Kilicdaroglu denounced the detentions, "If you defend democracy, then you defend that those who came with elections should go with elections. Otherwise you'll butcher democracy in Turkey."

Yildirim responded: "If they are elected but go hand in hand with terrorism, they of course need to be made to account."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government officials have repeatedly called for the prosecution of pro-Kurdish lawmakers on terrorism-related charges, which was made possible after legal immunities protecting legislators from prosecution were lifted in May.

Hundreds of charges were filed against HDP lawmakers following the lifting of immunity. Demirtas reacted to the lifting of immunity by saying none of his fellow party members would voluntarily appear in court to testify.

HDP lawmaker Garo Paylan told the AP if there was a free judiciary in Turkey, the parliamentarians would have easily gone to court.

"There is no free judiciary, that is why we don't want to go," he said. "They say if you don't obey Tayyip Erdogan, if you don't obey the ideology that is going on, a fascist ideology, you are a terrorist."

Also on Friday, Internet users nationwide complained about restricted access to social media and messaging apps, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Skype.

The TurkeyBlocks monitoring network confirmed the restricted access, saying its probes have identified "throttling at the ISP level as the source of the slowdowns."

Rights activists say restricting access to the internet is aimed at preventing calls for demonstrations in Turkey.

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Kiper reported from Istanbul.

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