October 20, 2015 / 5:18 AM / 4 years ago

Kurdish lawyer faces trial for saying PKK not terrorist group

ISTANBUL/DIYARBAKIR (Reuters) - A top Kurdish lawyer in conflict-riven southeast Turkey faces trial after saying the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose guerrillas are battling Turkish security forces, is not a terrorist group.

Tahir Elci, the head of Diyarbakir Bar Association, (2nd R) is escorted by plainclothes police officers as he leaves from his office in Diyarbakir, Turkey, early October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

Police detained Tahir Elci, who heads the bar association of Diyarbakir province in southeast Turkey, during a pre-dawn raid on Tuesday on his office. An Istanbul court later ordered his release pending the trial, on condition that he not leave the country and that he report regularly to the authorities, his lawyer Mehmet Emin Aktar said.

The date of his trial will be set at a later date.

Fighting has resumed between Turkish security forces and PKK militants following the breakdown of a two-year ceasefire in July. Hundreds have been killed in the past few months and tensions remain especially high in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey ahead of the country’s Nov. 1 parliamentary election.

Elci’s comments about the PKK, made on CNN Turk TV last week, infuriated state prosecutors who had wanted him kept in detention until his trial.

“Even if some of the PKK’s acts have a terrorist character, the PKK is an armed political movement,” Elci said during the TV discussion program. “It is a political movement with political demands and with very strong support in society.”

Police detained him before dawn on Tuesday in the city of Diyarbakir. Supporters, including lawyers and local politicians, gathered at his office to chant “pressure will not intimidate us”, witnesses said.

Elci was then flown to Istanbul for his court appearance.

The PKK, deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has been fighting an insurgency since 1984, demanding greater autonomy for the mainly Kurdish southeast. The conflict has killed about 40,000 people.

The Turkish state launched a peace process with the group’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 but the ceasefire collapsed in July.

The PKK declared a new unilateral ceasefire on Oct. 10 but clashes have continued. The Turkish armed forces said on Tuesday they had launched air strikes the previous day on PKK shelters and gun positions in the province of Hakkari.

Commenting on the decision to detain Elci, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan told Kanal 7 TV the terrorist propaganda law was clear and applied to everyone.

Turkey’s record on freedom of expression draws frequent criticism at home and abroad and opponents of President Tayyip Erdogan accuse him of increasingly authoritarian behavior.

Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones

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