DIYARBEKIR (Reuters)–Turkish riot police charged into crowds of Kurds protesting on Tuesday against the arrests of three Kurdish mayors for alleged links to jailed Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)..
Tension has mounted since Diyarbakir mayor Feridun Celik and two other mayors from the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) were arrested at the weekend for alleged ties to Ocalan and his group.
Their arrests have dimmed hopes of early moves by Turkey to ease curbs on Kurdish cultural rights and peaceful political dissent. Such moves would be welcomed by European Union countries which granted Ankara candidacy status in December.
Dozens of demonstrators chanting "Freedom to the mayors" were beaten and detained by police as they attempted to converge on the main square in Diyarbakir–capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast.
The protest broke up and by late afternoon the city was quiet.
In another southeastern city–Siirt–97 protesters were arrested after they tried to march on the city council headquarters–a security official said.
Celik–the most prominent of the three mayors detained–was elected with an overwhelming 63 percent of the vote last year.
"The mayors’ efforts for stability–democratic solutions and a lasting peace in Turkey are partly the reason they were taken into custody," Sehabettin Ozarslaner–mayor of the Kurdish city of Van–told a news conference in Diyarbakir.
He flatly rejected accusations by the authorities that the three were linked to the PKK. "None of our mayors has ties to any illegal organization. We will continue our democratic struggle," he said–flanked by 33 other HADEP municipal officials from around the region.
HADEP swept to power in city councils across the southeast in elections last year. It advocates Kurdish cultural rights and a negotiated end to the 15-year-old conflict between Turkish government forces and Ocalan’s PKK.
The Turkish government refuses to deal with the PKK or with HADEP–which faces a possible ban later this year on accusations that it serves the guerrilla cause.
Far-right coalition leader Devlet Bahceli–the deputy prime minister–supported the arrests–saying the Kurdish party should make clear its position on the PKK.
HADEP–Bahceli told his deputies–must choose between being "an instrument of PKK strategies" or a democratic force.
Turkey’s establishment has long been deeply suspicious of HADEP–accusing it of being a PKK mouthpiece. Two predecessor parties were banned and its deputies jailed for separatism. Lawyers for the three detained mayors demanded they be given a full medical examination–and alleged that doctors’ reports had showed possible signs of physical abuse.
"We have asked the prosecutors for a serious check-up–after seeing reports of marks on their bodies," said Sezgin Tanrikulu.
Under Turkish emergency law–suspects may be held for up to four days without charge and without access to a lawyer–a time–rights groups say–when they could be tortured and abused.
The authorized periods of detention for two of the mayors expire on Wednesday–when they must appear before a judge who will decide whether there are grounds to remand them in custody.