ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Freeing thousands of Kurdish activists from Turkish prisons could help a fledgling peace initiative to end a three-decade-old insurgency, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Anti-terrorism laws have allowed Turkish courts to jail people engaged in non-violent action, especially those seeking greater Kurdish rights, New York-based HRW said in its 2013 World Report, which examined more than 90 countries.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has led efforts in recent months to end the war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which seeks autonomy for the country's estimated 14 million ethnic Kurds.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union call the PKK a terrorist group. It took up arms in 1984, and more than 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, have since died.
"If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step," HRW's Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb said in a statement accompanying the report.
Turkey's ethnic Kurds live mainly in the country's southeast, an area bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran which also have Kurdish populations.
Erdogan's efforts to end the conflict have included talks between the intelligence agency and the PKK's jailed leader.
The AK Party has pledged to expand political freedoms and points to Kurdish language rights, greater civilian control of the military and economic liberalization as milestones in its 10-year tenure in office.
HRW also said Turkey has been slow to prosecute human rights violations by state officials and has failed to make progress in a probe of a December 2011 air strike that killed 34 Kurdish men and boys near the Iraqi border, HRW said.
While the main barrier to human rights in Turkey is the Kurdish issue, freedom of speech and press are widely restricted and the political climate prohibits dissenting views, it said.
HRW referred to Erdogan's criticism of a TV soap opera that depicted a lascivious Ottoman court and the lawsuits he has opened against his critics.
Key areas of reform in Turkey have included a package of judicial reforms and the trial of a general blamed for the disappearance of 13 civilians in the mainly Kurdish southeast in the 1990s during the height of the PKK conflict, HRW said.
"Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy (and) incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence," Sinclair-Webb said.
Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Ruth Pitchford