Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Turkey begins trial of dozens of Kurdish mayors accused of supporting rebels

The Associated Press

Published: September 26, 2006
ANKARA, Turkey More than 50 Kurdish mayors went on trial Tuesday to face charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist organization for seeking to keep a Kurdish television station on the air in Denmark.

The trial, seen as the latest test of freedom of speech in Turkey, is likely to further strain relations with the European Union, which has been pushing the country to strengthen the rights of its Kurdish minority.

The 56 mayors were indicted after writing a letter to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen asking him to keep the Roj TV station, which is banned in Turkey, on the air in Denmark despite claims from Turkey that it is a mouthpiece for the country's main rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.

Rebel commanders often join the station's broadcasts by satellite telephone from their mountain hideouts in northern Iraq.

Last year, the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen demanded that Denmark revoke the station's broadcasting license. The Danish government has refused to do so, citing freedom of speech. But authorities there are investigating whether the station has any links to the rebels, a claim the station has denied.

The trial is being held in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast, where Kurdish guerrillas have recently escalated their attacks in a fight for autonomy that has lasted more than two decades.

Forty-five of the mayors attended Tuesday's opening hearing. Danish diplomats and human rights activists were also present to monitor the case.

Firat Anli, mayor of the small town of Yenisehir, near Diyarbakir, told the court that he and the other defendants "were standing behind every word" of the letter they sent to Fogh Rasmussen. He said the indictment was not objective and all should be acquitted.

Turkey began negotiations a year ago to join the European Union and is under pressure to expand freedom of speech and improve the treatment of its Kurdish minority. Ankara does not recognize the Kurds as an official minority and has ruled out any dialogue with the guerrillas.

A Turkish prosecutor demanded 15 years in prison for the mayors in an indictment in June that accuses them of aiding and abetting a terrorist group. The PKK has been listed by Turkey, the European Union and the United States as a terrorist organization.

The Danish premier has strongly criticized the mayors' indictment.

"I find it rather shocking ... that because you write a letter to me, you are being accused of violating the law," Fogh Rasmussen told Danish public radio in June. "It is shocking that it can take place in a country which is seeking EU membership."

Danish-Turkish relations have long been strained over Kurdish groups based in Denmark.

In 1995, a political arm of the PKK opened its fourth European office in Copenhagen, sparking protests from the Turkish Embassy. The office later closed because of a lack of funding. In 2000, Turkey protested that a Kurdish-language satellite TV station, Mesopotamia TV, was allowed to broadcast from Denmark to Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.


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