Thursday, September 28, 2006

Kurdish mayors stand trial in Turkey

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 ยท Last updated 3:02 p.m. PT


ANKARA, Turkey -- Fifty-six Kurdish mayors stood trial Tuesday, accused in Turkey's latest freedom-of-speech case on charges of helping terrorists by arguing to keep a Kurdish TV station on the air.

The Denmark-based Roj television station is banned in Turkey. It often features leaders of the main outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group speaking by satellite telephone from their mountain hideouts in northern Iraq. Their comments are accompanied by images of rebels training or attacking Turkish soldiers.

The mayors from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party were indicted after writing a letter to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen asking him not to pull the plug on the TV station, despite claims by Turkey that it is a PKK propaganda machine.

In recent years, the autonomy-seeking Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has stepped up its bombings and attacks across Turkey, targeting civilians and tourists as well as troops. The PKK has been listed by the EU and the United States as a terrorist organization.

Appearing before the court in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast, the mayors pleaded innocent to the charges and defended their letter as "free speech."

"We are standing behind each of the 405 words in our famous letter," Yenisehir Mayor Firat Anli told the court, reading from the five-page statement. "If examined, our letter points to the need for maturity to tolerate opposition to freedom of speech and the establishment of a democratic living system."

A Turkish prosecutor demanded 15 years in prison for the mayors, most of whom face separate charges for their alleged ties to the rebels. The court adjourned the trial until Nov. 21.

Danish-Turkish relations have long been strained over Kurdish groups based in Denmark. The trial could damage Turkey's relations with the European Union, which has been pushing it to strengthen the rights of its Kurdish minority and eliminate limits on free speech.

On Tuesday, EU official Olli Rehn said he could not imagine having a country as an EU member that doesn't respect freedom of speech. The EU wants Turkey to change laws that penalize insulting the Turkish Republic, its officials or "Turkishness."

The military is suspicious of the Kurdish mayors' affiliation and critical of their performance.


Tuncer Bakirhan, former leader of a now defunct pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party, or DEHAP, leaves a courthouse after his trial in Ankara, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2006 for using an expression that shows respect to the imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief of Abdullah Ocalan and calling him "Mr. Ocalan," when Bakirhan and other members dissolved the party last year. DEHAP is facing closure on charges of ties to Kurdish guerrillas. The party members regrouped under a new political movement, Democratic Society Party.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)


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