Turkey's top court on Friday banned a pro-Kurdish political party on charges of ties to Kurdish rebels, a decision likely to disrupt a struggling reconciliation process between the state and minority Kurds.
Hasim Kilic, head of the Constitutional Court, said the court also expelled Democratic Society Party chairman Ahmet Turk and another legislator, Aysel Tugluk, from parliament, barring them and 35 other party members from joining any political party for five years.
Kilic said the party had become "a focal point of activities against the state's unity" with its "actions and ties to the terrorist organization" _ a reference to the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has fought for autonomy from the Turkish state since 1984.
"A political party does not have the freedom to praise acts or statements that involve terrorism and violence," Kilic said. "A political party must act in line with democratic social values."
The ban on the 4-year-old party was a setback for efforts to bring pro-Kurdish leaders into the political mainstream and it could escalate tension with the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of more than 70 million.
Turkey is engaged in a struggling bid to join the European Union, which has said Turkish laws that allow the banning of political parties are incompatible with European conventions on rights to freedom of assembly. The EU and the United States label the PKK as a terrorist organization.
"Turkey can't solve this problem by shutting parties, but through common logic," said Turk, the barred Kurdish leader whose refusal to call the PKK a terrorist group angered many Turks. "Despite all of this, Turkey will one day embrace peace. Our hope is that this process does not take too long."
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking before the court ruling, had accused the pro-Kurdish party of backing the rebels but vowed to press ahead with overtures to the Kurdish population despite criticism from Turkish nationalists that the unity of the state was under threat.
Erdogan complained the Democratic Society Party had not embraced recent efforts, which included easing cultural restrictions with the launch of a Kurdish-language department at a university and allowing inmates to speak the language with their relatives during prison visits. Turkey also launched a Kurdish-language channel on state television this year.
Erdogan's own party, the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, last year survived an attempt to ban it on charges it violated Turkey's secular principles. Justice and Development officials have argued political parties should not be banned unless they support terrorism.
On Friday, rebels shot and wounded three Turkish soldiers near the southeastern town of Semdinli, the Anatolia news agency reported. Earlier this week, Kurdish rebels killed seven Turkish soldiers in an ambush in central Turkey.
Hours after the verdict was announced, Kurdish protesters took to the streets in at least three mainly Kurdish towns and hurled stones and fireworks at police who responded with pressurized water and pepper gas, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
In the town of Silvan, hundreds of Kurdish youths, their faces covered with scarves, burned tires and pelted police with rocks, Dogan news agency footage showed. Police in riot gear and gas masks fired pepper gas canisters to disperse the crowds.
The court has shut down several Kurdish party on similar charges in the past. The predecessor of the Democratic Society Party had dissolved itself in 2005. The party is the 27th to be shut down in Turkey since 1968.
Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.