* Journalists charged with belonging to armed rebellion
* Thousands of pro-Kurdish activists jailed since 2009
* Family and friends blow kisses, call out names in court
By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL, Sept 10 Forty-four pro-Kurdish
journalists went on trial in Turkey on Monday, charged with
belonging to an armed rebellion in the country's largest media
case, intensifying concerns about press and political freedoms.
Thousands of pro-Kurdish trade unionists, politicians,
academics and journalists have been jailed since 2009, accused
of links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which
has waged a 28-year campaign against Turkey.
"The clampdown on the Kurdish press ... raises major
concerns about the treatment of minorities and minority
opinion," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human
Rights Watch (HRW).
"Even when those views are offensive, they must be
protected," she said.
The trial takes place against a surge in violence in the
long-running conflict with the PKK.
Since June 2011, more than 800 people have been killed in
fighting, including some 500 PKK fighters, 200 security
personnel and 85 civilians in some of the heaviest fighting in
years, according to the International Crisis Group. More than
40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have died since 1984.
Facing between seven and 20 years in jail, the defendants
are accused of belonging to the Union of Kurdistan Communities
(KCK), which the state says is the urban wing of the PKK, seen
as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
Thirty-six of the 44 defendants have been in prison since
December awaiting Monday's start to the trial. Another 46
journalists are in prison pending trial in different cases,
according to the Solidarity Platform for Arrested Journalists.
Judges emptied the public gallery and delayed the hearing's
start by several hours because of the noise created by family
and friends calling out defendants' names, waving and blowing
kisses as they entered the courtroom.
After the raucous start, the court refused to hear testimony
in Kurdish, the first language of most of the defendants.
"Using your mother language is like breathing. Should
permission be sought when taking a breath?" said defendant
Yuksel Genc, who read the only testimony in Turkish.
The KCK tribunals have led civil rights groups to question
the stated commitment of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's
government to human rights, particularly given the widespread
use of pre-trial detention.
Some supporters of the government argue it is using judicial
measures to pursue those with suspected links to or sympathies
for the guerrillas to drain grassroots support for the PKK and
even put pressure on it to demilitarise.
Critics say the arrests amount to a crackdown on the Peace
and Democracy Party (BDP), parliament's pro-Kurdish party.
The BDP says more than 1,000 of its members are in jail.
"This is a political trial. All of the trials under the KCK
banner are an effort to break the back of the Kurdish political
struggle," Ertugrul Kurkcu, a BDP lawmaker, told Reuters.
"The judiciary is a weapon in the war," he said.
Kurds are Turkey's biggest ethnic minority, making up an
estimated 20 percent of the population of 74 million people.
Reporters Without Borders said the trial "undermined
Turkey's attempts to play the role of a regional model".
HRW's Sinclair-Webb said the latest KCK indictment did not
accuse any defendant of planning or carrying out attacks and
that evidence they were involved in violence was "very thin".
The charge sheet includes evidence such as books seized from
defendants' homes, attendance at demonstrations they covered for
their publications and a photograph of one of the reporters
standing beside a road sign bearing the town name Kandil, also
the name of the Iraqi mountain where the PKK is based.
Defendant Irfan Bilgic, 24, worked for a company that
distributed Kurdish newspapers and is accused of rallying
support for the PKK by selling the papers at demonstrations.
His sister Harbiye Bilgic said Irfan was proud of being a
Kurd but was never involved in any outright action.
"The charges are rubbish," she said. "Every day we pray and
cry for his release."