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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Controversial Trial of Kurdish Mayors Starts

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- Fifty-six Kurdish mayors went on trial Tuesday over a letter they sent to Denmark's prime minister in a case that has raised concerns in the European Union.

The mayors from Turkey's largest Kurdish party are charged by Turkish state prosecutors with "knowingly and willingly" helping Kurdish rebels when they urged Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen not to close Denmark-based Kurdish broadcaster Roj TV.

The members of the Democratic Society Party, formerly led by Tuncer Bakhirhan, which champions Kurdish rights, each face up to 15 years in jail if convicted. Forty-five of the mayors attended the court Tuesday.

The criminal court judge adjourned the trial until Nov. 21.

"The problem [of Kurdish rights] cannot be solved by closing Roj TV, which has been forced to broadcast from Denmark," said Yenisehir mayor Firat Anli in a defense statement on behalf of the mayors, noting that similar channels had been shut in the past.

"The way to reach a solution for our problems is to enable people to produce and watch Kurdish language broadcasts without bans or limitations in these ancient lands in which we live," he said.

Ankara accused Roj TV of being a mouthpiece of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 with the aim of carving out an ethnic homeland in the southeast.

More than 30,000 people have been killed in that conflict. The European Union and the United States, as well as Turkey, view the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Rasmussen said in June that putting the mayors on trial over the letter contravened the values of the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join. The Danish government has also resisted pressure from Turkey to shut the station, citing freedom of expression.

Ankara, which began EU membership talks last October, has been criticized by Brussels for its slow pace of reform.

Turkey is under EU pressure to improve the cultural rights of its ethnic minorities, especially the 12 million Kurds who until the 1990s were banned from using their language in public.

Brussels has also called on Turkey to lower the 10 percent threshold of votes needed to enter the parliament in Ankara, which has prevented Kurdish parties from winning seats.