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Jailed head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish party acquitted of insulting minister

FILE PHOTO: The leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas greets his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey June 5, 2016. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) - A Turkish court acquitted the jailed head of a pro-Kurdish opposition party on Wednesday of insulting the interior minister, a small victory for a man already jailed for 14 months and facing more than 142 years in prison on terrorism charges.

Appearing in an Ankara courtroom for the second time in weeks, Selahattin Demirtas dismissed his impending terrorism trials as a sham and said he had been tried in the court of public opinion by a media beholden to President Tayyip Erdogan.

"I am a lawyer of 27 years and this is not a trial. My hearings were held by the mainstream media and this is now my execution," Demirtas, the co-head of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), told the court.

The court acquitted him of insulting Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu in a 2015 speech, ruling that his comments were protected because he had been appealing to public opinion during a campaign.

Demirtas had accused Soylu of forming teams to train local members of the ruling AK Party to manipulate the outcome of a 2015 parliamentary election.

"The speeches were aimed at appealing to the public during an election campaign and do not carry the properties of insult," the lead judge told the court.

Turkish authorities accuse Demirtas and other detained members of the HDP of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the state and is classed by Turkey, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organisation. They deny any links.

SECURITY CONCERNS

Wednesday's hearing was moved to a remote courthouse some 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside Ankara amid security concerns. The governor's office banned all demonstrations in the capital city on the grounds that crowds may be targeted by terrorists.

Last week Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer, made his first public appearance since his arrest, standing before an Istanbul court on charges of insulting Erdogan, in a separate case that carries an additional four years in prison.

Hundreds of supporters turned out for that trial.

A second hearing against Demirtas scheduled for Wednesday - concerning comments he made in October 2015 insinuating that the government had foreknowledge of deadly bombings that targeted Kurdish supporters - was adjourned until April 18th.

Court have not allowed Demirtas to attend hearings for his other cases citing security reasons, and he has refused to take part via video link.

Demirtas's HDP, the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament, has been hammered by a crackdown that followed an abortive coup in Turkey in July 2016. About 50,000 people, including soldiers, journalists, academics and civil servants, have been arrested in that crackdown.

The HDP says as many as 5,000 of its party members have been detained, while several of its lawmakers have also been stripped of their parliamentary status.

Human rights groups and Turkey's Western allies say Erdogan has used the putsch as an excuse to quash dissent. The government says the purges are needed to thwart mounting threats to national security.

(Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

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