DIYARBAKIR, , Turkey — The words rang out from a rally bus, as thousands of ethnic Kurds gathered in protest against still-limited freedoms in Turkey.
“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.
Results of the government’s initiative have been mixed. The latest review of Turkey’s adherence to criterion for joining the European Union, released last Tuesday, noted that the “democratic opening, aimed notably at addressing the Kurdish issue, did not yet meet … expectations.”
The assessment from Brussels also found that “anti-terror legislation needs to be amended to avoid undue restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights.”
And while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been criticized by Kurds for their handling of the issue, the backlash from nationalist Turks against the AKP has been severe.
The Constitutional Court – which has also targeted the AKP – ruled to shut down the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), the predecessor of the BDP, which has helped sabotage government reconciliation efforts.
Rallying around the PKK
Opposition parties accuse the AKP of negotiating with the “enemy” PKK, and of dangerously compromising the principles of the Turkish state. Many Turks were taken aback by the scenes of jubilation in October 2009 when the government allowed back 34 PKK fighters and supporters from northern Iraq.
The returned fighters and sympathizers were treated as heroes in triumphalist scenes by thousands of Kurds who traveled to the border to welcome the so-called “peace group.” Though the border crossover had official sanction, a number were quickly arrested by the government. Nearly all have now returned to northern Iraq.
“They [the government] have cheated us,” says protester Mehmet, who wore dark green Kurdish trousers. “The PKK side made a step with the peace group, but they were all arrested…. Erdogan does his best to make other countries put the PKK on the terrorist list, but how is it possible to call … million[s of] Kurds terrorists?”
“If they are truly sincere, we can shake [the government’s] hand,” says Emine, a protesting mother. “Erdogan says, ‘The Kurdish issue is my issue,’ but nothing has changed.”
At the march, slogans for more rights turned more stridently pro-PKK when protesters were along narrower side roads difficult to access by the police. “PKK is society, and society is here!” they chanted. “No life without Ocalan!” was another chant, referring to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been jailed since 1999.
In front of the municipality buildings, a bright red PKK flag was hung from a tree, and a couple posed before a large poster of Mr. Ocalan. Among the people who took part in traditional Kurdish dancing were several young women dressed in the green military clothes of the outlawed rebels.
Suspects’ defense scorned for being delivered in Kurdish
The trial of the 153 Kurdish politicians and activists has drawn regular street protests – sometimes violent – since it began Oct. 18.
In the Diyarbakir courtroom Thursday, a judge ordered the microphone turned off when the first defendant began to speak in Kurdish. Earlier a note had been put on the case file, saying that “suspects offered defense in an incomprehensible language.”
Some 250 defense lawyers are working on the case, and on Thursday judges ruled that proceedings would not resume until Jan. 13 – and that those now in prison would remain there.
“We want an amnesty [for Kurdish rebels and activists]; we want our language,” says Emine, the protesting mother, who does not speak Turkish. “God created each person with their own language. What can we do?”