DIARBAKIR, Turkey (Al Jazeera)–More than 150 Kurds, including a dozen elected mayors, have gone on trial in Turkey for alleged links with outlawed Kurdish liberation groups.
Heavy security was in place outside the courthouse in Diyarbakir, the regional capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast, as the trial began on Monday.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the court in support of the defendants, as European rights activists and lawyers arrived in the city to monitor the case.
The defendants are accused of crimes including “leadership and membership of a terrorist organization”, “undermining the state’s unity”, “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “aiding an abetting a terrorist organization”, according to a 7,500-page indictment.
The suspects are said to be linked to the Kurdistan Associations Union (KCK), which prosecutors describe as a “terrorist group” that acts as the urban extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). If convicted, they face between five years to life in prison.
Those being tried include Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of Diyarbakir, who has publicly called for Kurdish autonomy. About 20 of the suspects are at large but are being tried in absentia.
The trial comes at a time when the Turkish military has raised the stakes in an ongoing war to against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq. The PKK has taken arms against the military for autonomy and liberation for Turkey’s embattled Kurdish community, which make up more than 20 percent of Turkey’s population. has Turkish officials have also reportedly held secret talks with an imprisoned PKK chief to try and end 26 years of fighting with the organization.
Turkey has also heavily cracked down on Kurdish groups. More than 1,000 people are in jail on charges that link them to the PKK, according to the Peace and Democracy Party, Turkey’s only pro-Kurdish grouping in parliament. The party came into prominence earlier this year after the government banned the Democratic Society Party (DTP).
For its part, the PKK has said the arrest of Kurdish politicians has made a political settlement of the conflict more remote.
Defense lawyers and Kurdish activists have slammed the trial as a move to “silence Kurds”.
“Our clients are being tried as unarmed members of an armed group,” Meral Danis Bestas, a lawyer, told reporters last week.
“This is a political trial aimed at silencing Kurds… This trial will serve as a litmus test for Turkey’s democracy and how it views the Kurdish conflict,” she said.
The trial is expected to last months because of the number of defendants. A special courtroom that can hold 500 people has been built for the proceedings.
Diplomatic sources said the European Union is monitoring the trial. The European Commission releases its report next month on Turkey’s progress towards meeting EU membership criteria.
Last year, it criticized the use of anti-terror laws to prosecute people for expressing non-violent opinions on Kurdish issues.