Turkish government to debate reforms as Kurdish pressure mounts

ANKARA Tue Aug 13, 2013 8:15am EDT

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan makes his address during a meeting with the 'wise people' commission in Istanbul April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Metin Pala/Pool

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan makes his address during a meeting with the 'wise people' commission in Istanbul April 4, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Metin Pala/Pool

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's government is expected to begin debating a package of long-awaited reforms next week aimed at bolstering Kurdish rights and boosting democracy, a step which could help keep a fragile peace process on track.

The cabinet will discuss the "democratization package" - whose proposals range from wider Kurdish-language education to changes to anti-terror laws - at its meeting next Monday, a senior justice ministry official told Reuters.

At stake is a bid to end a three-decade conflict with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in which more than 40,000 people were killed. Abdullah Ocalan, the group's jailed leader, declared a halt to hostilities in March after months of talks with the state.

That ceasefire has largely held, with his fighters beginning to withdraw to bases in the northern Iraqi mountains in May, but the PKK has said clashes could resume if Ankara does not take concrete steps by the start of September.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has invested much political capital in the process, which has enjoyed strong public support but is increasingly attracting fierce nationalist criticism over perceived concessions to militants officially deemed terrorists.

The justice ministry has presented to Erdogan its report on the reforms and the prime minister's office was preparing its own report on the package, encompassing a range of "pro-democracy" steps including boosting minority rights.

"The package is expected to be taken up at the cabinet meeting next Monday," the ministry official said.

Last week, Erdogan said parliament may reconvene early from its summer recess to pass laws to expand Kurdish rights. It is scheduled to start on October 1, but media reports indicate it may reassemble in mid September.

The delicate peace process has taken on an additional urgency for Turkey as Kurdish militias fighting in neighboring Syria's civil war push for greater autonomy for parts of northern Syria, just over the border.

OCALAN'S CELL

The justice ministry report focuses on technical matters while Erdogan's office was dealing with more sensitive political issues, such as the 10 percent threshold of votes parties need to enter parliament - a level which Kurds want lowered.

Other reforms under discussion include the reopening of the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary on an island near Istanbul, removing restrictions on the wearing of Islamic headscarves and boosting the rights of the Alevi minority, the official said.

Also under consideration were changes in the law regulating public meetings and protests, and ending the prosecution of suspects as terrorists if they are not in a militant group's hierarchy and have not been involved in violent acts, he added.

While the planned reforms are wide ranging, the peace process is seen as the key motivation for the package.

Possible concessions could include moving Ocalan back to the cell where he was first held on the island of Imrali near Istanbul after his capture in 1999, the official said.

Ocalan was moved to a smaller cell on Imrali as violence flared in later years and among Kurdish demands are improved jail conditions for him before his ultimate release.

The PKK has repeatedly stressed the urgency of the reforms and political commentator Murat Yetkin, who follows the subject closely, said on Tuesday the group was now calling for the government to unveil its reforms by August 15 or face renewed hostilities.

That date marks the 29th anniversary of the start of the PKK's armed insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984.

Kurdish politicians are also seeking abolition of an anti-terrorism law under which thousands have been imprisoned for links to the PKK and full Kurdish language education rights, calling for the passage of the reforms by mid-October.

Turkey, the United States and European Union designate the PKK as a terrorist organization. It took up arms to carve out an independent homeland in the mainly Kurdish southeast but later scaled back its demands to greater cultural rights and autonomy.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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