By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul and Funja Guler in Ankara – Financial Times, 06/11/2012
Turkey sought to head off a spiralling political crisis on Tuesday by promising greater legal rights for Kurdish defendants, amid fears that more prisoners could join a mass hunger strike that has shaken the government.The move to allow people in court cases to defend themselves in Kurdish languages, spoken by up to a fifth of the country, came as Kurdish politicians warned that thousands more prisoners could join a hunger strike in which more than 600 detainees are already taking part.
As the strike has dragged on for more than 50 days, doctors warned that some participants could die within days.
“Even as we tell them to end terrorism and give up guns, they hug death and blood all the closer,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, referring to the Kurdish party backing the strikers. “Isn’t it unjust to force people who are already in prison to go on hunger strike?”
The government said Mr Erdogan had ordered the justice ministry to proceed rapidly with the new law permitting the use of Kurdish in court – one of the strikers’ central demands – following up on a promise made by the ruling party Congress in September.
The initiative was welcomed by members of the Kurdish bloc in parliament as a sign of good intentions, even as they said the hunger strike was growing. Sirri Sureyya Onder, an MP for the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party, said thousands of prisoners had joined the strike this week and that eight MPs would join in a couple of days time if concrete steps were not taken.
Many analysts have long identified the country’s Kurdish conflict, in which 30,000-40,000 people have died over the past three decades, as the country’s biggest political problem.
It has taken on added urgency this year, as the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which is internationally classified as a terrorist organisation, has stepped up attacks to levels not seen since the 1990s.
The emergence of de facto autonomous Kurdish rule in northern Syria and the ever greater self-confidence of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq are widely seen as bolstering the ambitions of Turkey’s own, more numerous Kurds in their push for greater self-rule.
The hunger strike began in September, with strikers calling for the right to use Kurdish in schools as well as the courtroom and more lenient conditions for Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, currently held in solitary confinement on an island near Istanbul.
Mr Ocalan is vilified as a terrorist chief by most of the country and Mr Erdogan said this month that many Turks wanted him to be executed, even though the death penalty has been abolished. But many Kurds identify him as the leader of their people.
“The key demand is Ocalan,” said Rusen Cakir, a Turkish journalist and author, who said the hunger strike was putting enormous pressure on the Turkish government. “The government has no choice but to accept Ocalan as an interlocutor.”