December 12, 2009 / 12:37 PM / 10 years ago

Clashes erupt as Turkey bans Kurdish party

ANKARA (Reuters) - Clashes erupted in some towns across Turkey’s Kurdish southeast on Saturday after a court disbanded a leading Kurdish party, dealing a blow to government efforts to end decades of conflict in the EU candidate country.

Pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) leader Ahmet Turk (C) addresses the media in front of his party headquarters as he is flanked by his party deputies Aysel Tugluk (R) and Emine Ayna (L), in Ankara December 12, 2009. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

In Ankara, deputies from the Democratic Society Party (DTP) said they would quit parliament in protest at a ruling by the Constitutional Court to dissolve the party, which has raised concerns in the European Union and in Washington.

Hundreds of protesters pelted riot police with petrol bombs and stones in the town of Hakkari, pictures posted on Hurriyet daily’s website showed. Police fired water cannon and tear gas at protesters, who lit street barricades.

State news agency Anatolian said a girl was injured in Hakkari, where protesters attacked two police officers, who were saved by former DTP officials.

There were also reports of clashes in Van and of protests in the city of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the southeast and where tensions remained high.

The court ruled on Friday in favor of banning the DTP after it found it guilty of cooperating with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatist guerrillas.

The verdict, which has plunged the mainly Muslim country into political uncertainty, threatens to undermine Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party’s drive to reconcile minority Kurds with the state and end decades of conflict.

It is also likely to hit sentiment in Turkish financial markets when they reopen on Monday.

“Banning the Democratic Society Party is a blow to efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue and ensure minority rights in Turkey,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“As a matter of urgency, the government should revise the constitution and Law on Political Parties, so that this kind of ban won’t be possible in the future,” Sinclair-Webb said.

With European Union membership in mind, Erdogan took a political gamble when he launched reforms to boost Kurds’ cultural rights in the hope of ending a conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives.

The conservative establishment, including the judiciary, has traditionally regarded Kurdish aspirations for more autonomy as a threat to the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

RESIGNATIONS?

If all 21 MPs from the DTP resign it would raise the possibility of by-elections. The DTP is the only Kurdish party in parliament and controls nearly 100 municipalities.

Erdogan’s AK Party enjoys a majority in the 550-seat assembly, but he could lose support among Kurdish and nationalist voters ahead of an election in 2011.

“From this day, we are withdrawing from parliament. We will not participate in any parliamentary meeting or events,” DTP chairman Ahmet Turk told a news conference.

Several Kurdish parties have been outlawed in Turkey, but members of banned parties have regrouped under a new name.

Turk, who has resisted calls to condemn PKK violence, did not say what steps his supporters would take, but said “we still believe in democratic politics.” The PKK is branded a terrorist group by Washington, Brussels and Ankara

EU, US CONCERN

The EU has expressed concern over the verdict, having warned the ban would violate Kurdish rights. The U.S. State Department said Turkey’s democracy should advance political freedom for all its citizens and steps that restrict those rights “should be exercised with extreme caution.”

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) shout slogans in front of the DTP headquarters in Ankara December 12, 2009. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The PKK has fought for 25 years for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. The Kurds, who make up around 20 percent of the population but were for decades forbidden to use the Kurdish language, have long complained of discrimination.

Analysts say the ban could strengthen the PKK’s hand by undermining confidence in the democratic process.

Erdogan’s AK Party narrowly survived a legal case by the same court to shut down the party in 2008. (Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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