ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Kurdish militants appear to have achieved their aim of being able to speak in their own language in court after the Turkish government said it would soon submit a bill to parliament on the subject.
Courts’ refusal to allow defendants who speak Turkish to use Kurdish in their defense has been a source of controversy in ongoing court cases against hundreds of defendants accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group and resolving the issue has been one of several key Kurdish demands.
Some 700 Kurdish inmates in dozens of prisons are refusing solid food to try to exert pressure on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government to grant greater Kurdish minority rights and better conditions for a jailed militant leader.
Turkey’s main medical association has warned that some of the hunger strikers may die if they continue their protest.
The government said its decision to change the law had nothing to do with the hunger strike.
“A person will be able to defend themselves in court in the language in which they can best express themselves,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters late on Monday after a cabinet meeting where the issue was discussed.
“The prime minister has given the order to our justice minister to develop this and send it rapidly to parliament to become law,” he said.
Arinc said the ruling AK Party had pledged the reform in a booklet distributed at its congress in September, seeking to dispel the idea it was acting in response to the hunger strike.
Erdogan’s government has boosted Kurdish cultural and language rights since taking power a decade ago, but Kurdish politicians are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
The leader of the main pro-Kurdish party welcomed the move.
“But we don’t have another 56 days ahead us to sort this out. There are only a few days. These statements must be acted on,” BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told a party meeting.
Fifty six is the number of days the militants have been on hunger strike for.
Arinc called on the inmates to end their protest.
“Don’t upset us and our nation,” he said. “Please end these strikes in the knowledge that there is a democratic atmosphere in Turkey where your demands can be discussed.”
Erdogan has taken a hard line, describing the protest as blackmail and a “show”. The head of the Turkish Medical Association has warned that such comments risked hardening the inmates’ resolve.
The protesters’ main demand is for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul, to have access to his lawyers after 15 months of no contact. Most of the inmates are either convicted PKK members or accused of links to the outlawed group.
A PKK statement said it believed the hunger strike could end if the protesters’ “reasonable demands” were met.
The protests follow a surge in violence between Turkey and the PKK, which took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out an independent Kurdish state. Turkish Kurds now number around 15 million, or around one fifth of the population.
The PKK has staged some of its bloodiest attacks in more than a decade this year as tensions grow between Turkey and its neighbor Syria, which Ankara has accused of arming the PKK.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Ayla Jean Yackley; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Andrew Osborn