By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Forty-four pro-Kurdish journalists went on trial in Turkey on Monday, charged with belonging to an armed rebellion in the country's largest media case, intensifying concerns about press and political freedoms.
Thousands of pro-Kurdish trade unionists, politicians, academics and journalists have been jailed since 2009, accused of links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 28-year campaign against Turkey.
"The clampdown on the Kurdish press ... raises major concerns about the treatment of minorities and minority opinion," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"Even when those views are offensive, they must be protected," she said.
The trial takes place against a surge in violence in the long-running conflict with the PKK.
Since June 2011, more than 800 people have been killed in fighting, including some 500 PKK fighters, 200 security personnel and 85 civilians in some of the heaviest fighting in years, according to the International Crisis Group. More than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have died since 1984.
Facing between seven and 20 years in jail, the defendants are accused of belonging to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), which the state says is the urban wing of the PKK, seen as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
Thirty-six of the 44 defendants have been in prison since December awaiting Monday's start to the trial. Another 46 journalists are in prison pending trial in different cases, according to the Solidarity Platform for Arrested Journalists.
Judges emptied the public gallery and delayed the hearing's start by several hours because of the noise created by family and friends calling out defendants' names, waving and blowing kisses as they entered the courtroom.
After the raucous start, the court refused to hear testimony in Kurdish, the first language of most of the defendants.
"Using your mother language is like breathing. Should permission be sought when taking a breath?" said defendant Yuksel Genc, who read the only testimony in Turkish.
The KCK tribunals have led civil rights groups to question the stated commitment of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government to human rights, particularly given the widespread use of pre-trial detention.
Some supporters of the government argue it is using judicial measures to pursue those with suspected links to or sympathies for the guerrillas to drain grassroots support for the PKK and even put pressure on it to demilitarize.
Critics say the arrests amount to a crackdown on the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), parliament's pro-Kurdish party. The BDP says more than 1,000 of its members are in jail.
"This is a political trial. All of the trials under the KCK banner are an effort to break the back of the Kurdish political struggle," Ertugrul Kurkcu, a BDP lawmaker, told Reuters.
"The judiciary is a weapon in the war," he said.
Kurds are Turkey's biggest ethnic minority, making up an estimated 20 percent of the population of 74 million people.
Reporters Without Borders said the trial "undermined Turkey's attempts to play the role of a regional model".
HRW's Sinclair-Webb said the latest KCK indictment did not accuse any defendant of planning or carrying out attacks and that evidence they were involved in violence was "very thin".
The charge sheet includes evidence such as books seized from defendants' homes, attendance at demonstrations they covered for their publications and a photograph of one of the reporters standing beside a road sign bearing the town name Kandil, also the name of the Iraqi mountain where the PKK is based.
Defendant Irfan Bilgic, 24, worked for a company that distributed Kurdish newspapers and is accused of rallying support for the PKK by selling the papers at demonstrations.
His sister Harbiye Bilgic said Irfan was proud of being a Kurd but was never involved in any outright action.
"The charges are rubbish," she said. "Every day we pray and cry for his release."
(Editing by Louise Ireland and Nick Tattersall)