DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Ten Kurdish defendants, including six former mayors, were released from jail on Tuesday in a trial of 175 people accused of links to militants, a further small step in Turkey’s efforts to end a Kurdish insurgency.
After more than three years in prison the defendants hugged family members as they emerged from the prison gates at dawn in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, and were greeted by the city’s mayor.
Their release coincided with fledgling peace talks between Turkey and the jailed leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, aimed at ending a 28-year-old conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
“We will move hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder to advance this developing process and, with this responsibility, get on with our lives,” Firat Anli, former mayor of the Diyarbakir district of Yenisehir, told reporters after his release.
Those released, after a marathon 18-hour court session, are among 175 people accused of involvement in the PKK-linked political umbrella group KCK at the trial in Diyarbakir. Thousands have been detained over links to the KCK.
The court did not give an immediate reason for the release of the defendants, although their lawyers had rejected the charges against them. It can often take weeks for courts to announce reasons behind decisions.
“We are experiencing joy today, but thousands of our friends continue to be held,” said Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir.
“God willing, soon our friends will be freed and reunited with their families, unlawfulness will give way to rule of law and conflict will give way to an honorable and lasting peace.”
Among those released were the former mayors of the towns of Sirnak, Hakkari and Batman in Turkey’s southeast.
Turkey has used anti-terrorism legislation widely to prosecute politicians, activists and journalists, mostly Kurds. But it has taken steps in recent months towards ending the conflict with the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
Last month, parliament passed a law allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court.
The government has also drafted a penal code reform, expected to be sent to parliament soon, narrowing the definition of terrorist propaganda, potentially leading to the release of hundreds of KCK defendants.
The peace process envisages a PKK ceasefire, the withdrawal of fighters from Turkish territory to bases in northern Iraq, and eventual disarmament in return for reforms boosting the rights of a Kurdish minority numbering around 15 million - about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 76 million.
Progress has been delayed by the failure of the government and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to agree which Kurdish politicians will visit Ocalan in his island jail of Imrali, where he has been held since his capture in 1999.
Ocalan’s brother Mehmet visited him on Monday and said the PKK leader wanted leaders of the BDP and another Kurdish political group to visit him to push the process forward.
The moves toward peace risk triggering a backlash from nationalists. In a sign of the challenges ahead, a visit by Kurdish politicians to the Black Sea region to boost support for the process was marred by violent protests this week.
During his decade in power, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has pushed through reforms increasing Kurdish cultural rights but Kurdish politicians have demanded decentralization, Kurdish language education and a new constitution boosting equality.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Pravin Char