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Kurdish anger turns into protests over Turkish court case

A controversial court case, in which defendants have been barred from speaking Kurdish, reflects deeper tensions as Turkey tries to reconcile with a restive minority.

By Staff writer / November 12, 2010

A Kurdish women's group holds up signs calling for greater freedoms, as thousands of Turkish Kurds hold a protest march to the courthouse in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, where more than 150 ethnic Kurds--including a dozen elected mayors--stand trial on November 11.

Scott Peterson / Getty Images

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Diyarbakir, Turkey

The words rang out from a rally bus, as thousands of ethnic Kurds gathered in protest against still-limited freedoms in Turkey.

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“Join us, friends, we are walking for our mother tongue!” came the announcement, as local Kurdish politicians locked arms in defiance. “We walk for Kurdish to be spoken in parliament! For our [jailed] friends, who are victims of politics!”

Protests by Turkey’s Kurdish minority over a controversial court case are tapping into much deeper disappointment over a stalled government initiative to bring peace after decades of bloodshed between the state and Kurds demanding long-denied political and cultural freedoms.

Instead of reconciliation, however, 153 Kurdish politicians and activists – among them 12 sitting elected mayors – are on trial in Diyarbakir. Just over 100 of those are imprisoned – and constitute a fraction of the 1,500 Kurds behind bars across southeast Turkey held on similar recent charges of illegal political activities.

For many of the thousands who took to the streets Thursday, the government’s much heralded “Kurdish Opening” launched last year – including a state television channel in the long-banned Kurdish language, TRT6 – has proven insincere.

“Nothing changed, nothing happened – it’s just talk,” says Ali, a middle-aged protester who would only give his first name. “They opened TRT6, but if you write something [in Kurdish] on your shop window, it’s still illegal.”

Riot police with plastic armor, shields, and long batons had initially blocked roads, but then after negotiations with the protesters allowed the long column to snake its way inside the ancient black basalt walls of the old city, before reemerging and stopping near the municipality and courthouse complex.

“Either [the Kurdish] people will be recognized … so that we may all live together in this country, or the mentality that has denied Kurdish people [their rights] for 80 years will be revealed one more time,” said Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who addressed the crowd when it arrived in front of the courthouse building. “Do you still not understand that you can’t make this society slaves?”

Mixed results of government reconciliation attempts

After decades of conflict between the Turkish military and rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that left nearly 40,000 dead, 3,000 villages destroyed, and millions displaced in the 1980s and 1990s, the government last year launched an initiative aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Kurds.

The main PKK rebel group, which is based in northern Iraq, maintains it has adhered to a unilateral cease-fire. But a breakaway faction of Kurdish militants have kept up attacks – including one in Istanbul two weeks ago that targeted police but wounded more civilians instead.

And Kurds here note that the Turkish military has also continued strikes at PKK targets in Iraq and in the southeast of the country. Turkey, the US, and the European Union consider the PKK a “terrorist” group, though in this region it still has much support.

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