|Hundreds of Kurds gathered outside the court as the trial began on Monday [AFP]
More than 150 Kurds, including a dozen elected mayors, have gone on trial in Turkey for alleged links with a Kurdish rebel group.
Heavy security was in place outside the courthouse in Diyarbakir, the regional capital of the mainly Kurdish southeast, as the trial began on Monday.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the court in support of the suspects, as European rights activists and lawyers arrived in the city to monitor the case.
The defendants are accused of crimes including "leadership and membership of a terrorist organisation", "undermining the state's unity", "spreading terrorist propaganda" and "aiding an abetting a terrorist organisation", according to a 7,500-page indictment.
The suspects are said to be linked to the Kurdistan Associations Union (KCK), which prosecutors describe as a "terrorist group" that acts as the urban extension of the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). If convicted, they face between five years to life in prison.
Those being tried include Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of Diyarbakir, who has publicly called for Kurdish autonomy. About 20 of the suspects are at large but are being tried in absentia.
The trial comes at a time when the Turkish government has taken cautious steps to grant wider rights to the Kurdish community, which make up 20 per cent of Turkey's population. Turkish officials have also reportedly held secret talks with an imprisoned Kurdish rebel chief to try and end 26 years of fighting with autonomy-seeking rebels.
But Turkey has also cracked down on Kurdish groups. More than 1,000 people are in jail on charges that link them to the PKK, according to the Peace and Democracy Party, Turkey's only pro-Kurdish grouping in parliament.
For its part, the PKK has said the arrest of Kurdish politicians has made a political settlement of the conflict more remote.
Defence lawyers and Kurdish activists have slammed the trial as a move to "silence Kurds".
"Our clients are being tried as unarmed members of an armed group," Meral Danis Bestas, a lawyer, told reporters last week.
"This is a political trial aimed at silencing Kurds... This trial will serve as a litmus test for Turkey's democracy and how it views the Kurdish conflict," she said.
The trial is expected to last months because of the number of defendants. A special courtroom that can hold 500 people has been built for the proceedings.
Diplomatic sources said the European Union is monitoring the trial. The European Commission releases its report next month on Turkey's progress towards meeting EU membership criteria.
Last year, it criticised the use of anti-terror laws to prosecute people for expressing non-violent opinions on Kurdish issues.