DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Police arrested a senior Kurdish lawyer in southeast Turkey before dawn on Tuesday on a charge of terrorist propaganda after he said the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was not a terrorist group.
Supporters, including lawyers and local politicians, gathered at Tahir Elci’s office in the region’s largest city Diyarbakir, chanting “pressure will not intimidate us”, before he was flown to Istanbul.
Elci, head of Diyarbakir province’s bar association, made his assertion on CNN Turk TV last week, at a time when fighting is raging between PKK militants and government security forces, and tensions are mounting before Nov. 1 elections.
“Even if some of the PKK’s acts have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement,” he said during a discussion programme. “It is a political movement with political demands and with very strong support in society.”
The PKK, deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the EU, has been fighting an insurgency since 1984, demanding greater Kurdish autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast. The conflict has killed about 40,000 people.
The state launched a peace process with the group’s jailed leader in 2012 but a ceasefire collapsed in July and hundreds have died in the subsequent conflict.
Accompanied by his supporters, Elci waited in his office on Monday night for the police to arrive and execute the arrest warrant issued by an Istanbul court - a decision which had been leaked by Turkish media during the evening.
“If a bar chairman ... is subject to a criminal investigation and arrest because of what he said, it illustrates clearly what state democracy and freedom of expression has reached in this country,” he told reporters in his office.
Elci said he had been waiting all day in his office, within the Diyarbakir court house, for an invitation to go and make a statement in court.
Police from Turkey’s anti-terror force took him away at around 2:20 am (2320 GMT), said witnesses. He was due to be questioned in a courthouse in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district, the state-run Anadolu new agency said.
The agency said the charge was “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation”.
The Union of Turkish Bar Associations said it could not agree with a declaration that the PKK is not a terrorist group but said the warrant was “unlawful”, saying such a step should only be taken if a suspect refuses to go and make a statement.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Michael Perry and Andrew Heavens