Silivri, Turkey - A Nobel Peace Prize nominee was among more than 200 people who went on trial in Turkey on Monday, accused of links to Kurdish militants, in a case which has drawn international criticism of Ankara's record on freedom of speech.
The 205 defendants are accused of maintaining ties to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), allegedly the urban wing of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The trial, and others like it across the country, have led rights groups to question the commitment of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government to freedom of expression. Some 100 journalists are in jail on various charges linked to their reports.
Hundreds of Kurds, including women with young children, gathered in and outside the high-security courtroom 60 km (40 miles) west of Istanbul to support the defendants, many wearing scarves in Kurdish red, yellow and green colours. Some carried banners reading: “Release the Kurds”.
Among the defendants is Ragip Zarakolu, an internationally prominent publisher nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Swedish lawmakers in March. He has faced repeated legal action over controversial books he has published.
The trial began with most of the defendants answering in Kurdish “Ez li virim”, or “I am here”, when the judge read their names. Defendants' lawyers demanded the court bring in interpreters but their request was denied.
“It's not Kurds or Kurdish that is being tried here, this case is looking into an illegal and armed organisation,” Judge Ali Alkis said, prompting lawyers to leave the court in protest.
The PKK has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state for autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984. It is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
“We will not be attending the trial today because of the rejection of the most basic human right: to speak and defend yourself in the language you speak best, your mother tongue,” lawyer Ercan Kanar told the court.
The defendants and the hundreds of supporters broke into applause and cheered as the lawyers walked out.
Turkish is the only official language in Turkey where ethnic Kurds make up around a fifth of the population. Turkish citizens are required to speak Turkish at formal proceedings and can only request an interpreter if deemed unable to speak Turkish.
Many Kurds choose to speak in their mother tongue in protest at what they see as restrictions on freedom of speech.
Soldiers were summoned to the court to evict the defendants' supporters.
“Resist, resist, and we will win,” the crowd chanted as they were escorted out. The judge continued reading the remaining names before adjourning the trial until Tuesday.
Busra Ersanli, a professor from Istanbul's Marmara University, was one of the few defendants who spoke in Turkish when her name was called.
“I am an academic, I make around 3,000 lira ($1,600) a month,” a glum-looking Ersanli told the court.
Facing a maximum jail term of 15 years if convicted, the publisher Zarakolu was released on bail with 14 other people in April. Of the 205 defendants, 140 remain in custody.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders condemned the trial as “criminalisation of freedom of expression” and “abuse of pre-trial detention” and called for the journalists to be released immediately.
“Using guilt by association and interpreting the law in the most repressive manner possible, the justice system is equating outspoken intellectuals with armed terrorists,” it said. - Reuters