By Ece Toksabay
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Dozens of lawyers went on trial in Turkey on Monday on charges of links to Kurdish militants and foreign jurists rallied outside the court to protest at the latest in a series of cases that have drawn criticism of Ankara's human rights record.
All 50 defendants - including 46 lawyers - had been involved in representing the jailed Kurdish militant chief Abdullah Ocalan. Among the charges listed in the indictment against them was passing orders from Ocalan to rebel fighters.
The trial, and others like it across Turkey, have led lawyers and civic groups to question the stated commitment of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government to human rights and to criticize the widespread use of pre-trial detention.
"How bitterly funny is it that a country teaching democracy and human rights to Syria and the whole region is stealing the right to defense on its own soil," said Dogan Erbas, one of the lawyers on trial, told the court on behalf of other defendants.
"Going to bed as a lawyer and waking up as an executive of a terrorist organization shows that this case is not trying a crime, it is trying a political stance. This case has been political since the very start," he said.
The defendants, who include a journalist and three members of a law firm, stand accused of maintaining ties to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), which the state sees as the urban wing of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
A founding member and leader of the PKK, Ocalan, 64, was captured in 1999 and is serving a life prison term.
The PKK, considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state for autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984.
Thousands of Kurdish politicians, activists, journalists and academics have been arrested since 2009 on suspicion of links with the KCK and many of them remain in jail without being tried. Out of Monday's 50 defendants, 37 are in prison.
The trial got off to a chaotic start when more than 100 lawyers, all wanting to represent the defendants, tried to crowd into the small Istanbul courtroom with many resorting to standing on their seats in order to watch the proceedings.
"This is the largest courtroom we have, so there's no point in complaining about it," said presiding Judge Mehmet Ekinci, after receiving grievances about the size of the courtroom. Hundreds of people were unable to enter.
Defense lawyers took turns to speak, before leaving the courtroom to allow others to enter. "We are representing colleagues who are now defendants," some of them said.
As in similar trials, the court rejected a request by Erbas for the accused to defend themselves in the Kurdish language.
Turkish is the only official language in Turkey, where ethnic Kurds make up around a fifth of the population and Turkish citizens are required to speak Turkish at formal proceedings. They can request an interpreter only if deemed unable to speak Turkish.
FOREIGN LAWYERS RALLY OUTSIDE COURT
Dressed in their traditional gowns, scores of lawyers from 27 countries around the world gathered outside the courthouse in a show of support for the accused.
"We are here to support our colleagues and protest the judiciary actions that strip the defense of their rights to defend," said Judith Lichtenberg, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University in the United States.
"We will be following this case until the end and we will not leave our colleagues as captives to political motives," she told reporters shortly before the court opened.
In a written statement, 18 rights and lawyers' groups from Turkey, Europe and Canada said they had written to the United Nations calling on it to scrutinize the case and make recommendations to the Turkish government.
Monday's trial came two weeks after the start of another trial in which more than 200 people, including a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, stand accused of links to the KCK.
Fifteen of those defendants, including well-known academic Busra Ersanli, were released from custody last Friday in what appeared to be one of the first outcomes of legal reforms tightening up conditions for pre-trial detentions.
Those reforms were hurriedly pushed through parliament this month before the summer recess, following complaints by campaigners, and the prime minister, about the powers of state prosecutors.
(Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)