Turkey's highest court began deliberations Tuesday on a case seeking to close down the country's pro-Kurdish party and expel several party members from parliament on charges of ties to Kurdish rebels.
A decision to disband the party could derail the government's efforts toward reconciliation with ethnic Kurds and escalate tensions. Turkey has already witnessed violent street protests by Kurdish youths in the past weeks.
Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya has accused the Democratic Society Party of separatism and taking orders from the outlawed rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK.
He has demanded that the party be disbanded and dozens of party politicians be barred from joining political parties for five years. Eight legislators, including party chairman Ahmet Turk, face loosing their parliamentary seats.
The court's deliberations comes at a time of mounting tensions.
The government is contemplating reforms that would increase the minority Kurds' cultural rights and help end the 25-year-old conflict with the autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels.
But plans for a reconciliation have been marred by weeks of violent street demonstrations by Kurdish youths to denounce new prison conditions for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. One student died from gunshot wounds Sunday while another died Monday of severe burns from a firebomb attack by Kurdish militants in Istanbul.
Also Monday, assailants ambushed a military vehicle, killing seven soldiers in the central province of Tokat. Hundreds gathered for the soldiers' funeral, shouting slogans denouncing the PKK.
As the court's 11 justices began deliberating behind closed doors, the PKK accused the government of "intolerance" toward the party and called on Kurds to expand their resistance.
"The Kurdish people have no other way out but to resist and increase the level of the struggle for their existence," the PKK said in a statement carried by the Kurdish Firat news agency.
It could take the justices several days to reach a verdict.
The pro-Kurdish party, which has 21 seats in the 550-member parliament and controls several municipalities in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, denies links to the PKK.
Party legislators have threatened to resign from parliament if the court rules against the party _ a move that could force interim elections.
Turk, the party's chairman, said Tuesday his party had worked for peace and democracy.
"The verdict will affect the whole of Turkey," Turk said. "No one should regard the closure of the party as a legitimate act."
In his indictment, prosecutor Yalcinkaya said the party had become "a focal point of activities against the sovereignty of the state and indivisible unity of the country and the nation."
He said the party was "based on blood and orders from the terrorist organization of the PKK."
Several predecessors of the pro-Kurdish party were banned by the Constitutional Court for alleged ties to PKK rebels. whose fight for autonomy has killed tens of thousands of people.
The Democratic Society Party has refused to brand the rebels terrorists, infuriating many in Turkey. It has called on the government to negotiate with the rebels and to introduce an amnesty for the guerrilla leaders.
Both the U.S. and the European Union have labeled the PKK a terrorist organization.
Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey's more than 70 million people and dominate the country's southeast region.