Turkey president steps up bid to prosecute pro-Kurd MPs

Turkey president steps up bid to prosecute pro-Kurd MPs

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday stepped up his efforts to have pro-Kurdish lawmakers prosecuted, accusing them of "inciting terrorism" days after a suicide bombing in Ankara that the government blamed on Kurdish rebels.

Erdogan, who earlier this week said he wanted to expand the definition of "terrorism", urged parliament to move quickly to end immunity from prosecution for lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

His call comes as part of a growing clampdown on opposition media and pro-Kurdish voices that has drawn criticism from Europe.

Earlier, police detained eight pro-Kurdish lawyers in a dawn raid, a day after three academics were arrested on charges of "terrorist propaganda" for signing a petition condemning military actions in operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkey has blamed the PKK for a suicide car bombing in Ankara on Sunday that killed 35 people.

As part of efforts to boost security in the wake of Sunday's blast, Erdogan's party on Wednesday submitted a plan to parliament to hire 15,000 new police officers, most in counter-terror divisions.

- Kurdish crackdown -

Parliament has set up a committee to consider stripping five HDP MPs, including leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, of their immunity so they can be tried over their call for Kurdish autonomy.

"We must swiftly finalise the issue of immunities. Parliament must take steps on this issue swiftly," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

"I no longer see as legitimate political actors the members of a party which is operating as a branch of the terrorist organisation," Erdogan said, reiterating his claim that the HDP is a PKK front.

Lawmaker Ozgur Ozel from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said he was "very concerned that the president is behaving like he's giving orders to parliament".

Erdogan's call comes amid rising tension between the authorities and many in the Kurdish minority over the military's relentless campaign against PKK rebels.

More than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms in 1984 to demand more autonomy for Kurds. The group is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Ankara, Washington and the EU.

After a two-year ceasefire collapsed in the middle of last year, the PKK restarted its fight, calling for "uprisings" in the towns of the Kurdish-dominated southeast.

The pro-Kurdish Libertarian Lawyers' Association (OHO) organisation, which has asked Turkey's Constitutional Court to declare the military onslaught against the PKK as illegal, said eight of its members were arrested on Tuesday.

A British lecturer at Bilgi University questioned by police for allegedly distributing leaflets calling for Kurdish New Year celebrations was expected to be deported on Wednesday evening, Turkish media reported.

On Monday, as Turkey reeled from the attack in Ankara -- the third to hit the capital in five months -- Erdogan said he wanted to see the definition of terrorism expanded.

"There's no difference between a terrorist with a gun and bomb in his hand and those who exploit their positions, pens and titles and put them at terrorists' disposal to achieve their aims," he said.

"The fact that they are MPs, academics, writers, journalists, NGO executives does not change the fact that they are terrorists. Those who explode the bomb and pull the trigger can be terrorists but those who help that action achieve its goal are their supporters and abetters."

- 'Attack on free speech' -

Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the arrest of the academics on Tuesday as "the latest attack on free speech in Turkey".

"President Erdogan's vicious campaign against the academics is part of his drive to banish, punish, and silence all critical voices in Turkey," HRW's Emma Sinclair-Webb said in a statement, urging the authorities to drop the cases.

The clampdown comes as Ankara presses Brussels for accelerated EU membership in return for stemming the flow of migrants across its territory to Europe. A proposed deal is to be considered by a European summit on Thursday and Friday.

In the latest sign of European worries that Turkey is backsliding on democratic standards, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that a migrant deal with Ankara could not come at any cost.

"It goes without saying ... that we voice our convictions to Turkey regarding, for instance, the protection of press freedom or the treatment of the Kurds," Merkel said.