DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey freed a group of Kurdish former mayors accused of links to militants on Tuesday in a further small step towards halting a Kurdish insurgency, but the rebels’ jailed leader was reported as saying he could not stem the violence single-handedly.
After more than three years in prison, 10 Kurdish defendants including six former mayors hugged family members as they emerged from jail at dawn in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, and were greeted by the city’s mayor.
Their release coincided with fledgling peace talks between Turkey and the jailed leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, aimed at ending a 28-year-old conflict which has killed more than 40,000 people.
The court’s decision came hours after Ocalan’s brother Mehmet visited the PKK leader on the prison island of Imrali, south of Istanbul, where he has been held in virtual isolation since his capture by Turkish special forces in 1999.
Mehmet quoted his brother as playing down his ability to end the conflict, according to the Kurdish Dicle news agency.
“I‘m a prisoner here... If I say ‘I’ll do this, I’ll do that’, that wouldn’t be right and ethical,” Ocalan was quoted as saying by his brother in the Dicle report, calling for access to PKK commanders in northern Iraq.
“They are the ones who are running the movement. I can’t send news to them via the birds,” he said.
Dicle follows Kurdish issues closely but Ocalan’s reported comments could not be independently verified.
The peace process envisages a PKK ceasefire, the withdrawal of fighters to northern Iraq, and eventual disarmament in return for reforms boosting the rights of a Kurdish minority of some 15 million - about 20 percent of Turkey’s population of 76 million.
Progress has been delayed by the failure of the government and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to agree on which Kurdish politicians should be allowed to visit Ocalan.
Turkey has used anti-terrorism legislation widely to prosecute politicians, activists and journalists, mostly Kurds. But it has taken steps in recent months towards ending the conflict with the PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union.
Last month, parliament passed a law allowing defendants to use Kurdish in court.
The government has also drafted a penal code reform, expected to be sent to parliament soon, narrowing the definition of terrorist propaganda, potentially leading to the release of hundreds of KCK defendants.
Those released on Tuesday, after a marathon 18-hour court session, are among 175 people accused of involvement in the PKK-linked political umbrella group KCK at the trial in Diyarbakir. Thousands have been detained over links to the KCK.
The court did not give a reason for their release, but their lawyers had rejected the charges against them. It can often take weeks for Turkish courts to announce reasons behind decisions.
Among those released were the former mayors of the towns of Sirnak, Hakkari and Batman in Turkey’s southeast.
“We will move hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder to advance this developing process,” Firat Anli, former mayor of Diyarbakir district Yenisehir, told reporters after his release.
The moves toward peace risk triggering a backlash from nationalists. In a sign of the challenges ahead, a visit by Kurdish politicians to the Black Sea region to boost support for the process has been marred by violent protests this week.
During his decade in power, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has pushed through reforms increasing Kurdish cultural rights but Kurdish politicians have demanded decentralization, Kurdish language education and a new constitution boosting equality.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Pravin Char