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Turkey in 'gesture' to end Kurdish hunger strike

Turkish govt submits bill to parliament giving Kurds right to use Kurdish language in court as prisoners' hunger strike enters 63rd day

AFP , Tuesday 13 Nov 2012
Kurdish hunger strike
Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir (R) discusses with police officers (not pictured) during a protest in support of Kurdish hunger strikers in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey November 3, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
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Turkey's government submitted a bill to parliament Tuesday to give Kurds the right to use their own language in court, a key demand of hundreds of prisoners who have been on hunger strike for two months.

The move came as a Turkish rights group warned about the deteriorating health of the estimated 700 people on hunger strike, saying some could be at death's door as the action entered its 63rd day.

The legislation would allow a Kurdish detainee to "use another language (than Turkish) to defend himself against charges brought against him in court," and would also pave the way for conjugal visits, which are currently banned.

The government is under mounting pressure to end the hunger strike but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- who has described the action as "blackmail" -- insisted on Tuesday that his Islamic-rooted government would not bow to pressure.

"What is happening in prisons right now is the terrorist organisation is leading its members to death," Erdogan said in televised remarks, using a term often used to refer to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

But other prominent figures, including Turkish President Abdullah Gul as well as rights activists and doctors, have repeatedly expressed concern about the health of the strikers.

"Deaths can occur at any time. Some strikers are already suffering irreversible damage," Turkish Human Rights Association president Ozturk Turkdogan warned in a statement.

Sirri Sureyya Onder, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who joined the hunger strike at the weekend in a show of solidarity along with several other politicians, denounced the bill as "inadequate".

He urged Turkish authorities to meet another of the hunger strikers' demands, an improvement in conditions for jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is being held in solitary confinement on a remote island prison and is barred from receiving visitors.

Ocalan was charged with treason and sentenced to hang in 1999 but the sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2002 after Ankara abolished the death penalty under pressure from the European Union, which Turkey has long sought to join.

BDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas told AFP last week that the strike could end if Ankara allowed Ocalan, who has been in solitary confinement in Imrali prison off Istanbul for about a year and half, to receive visitors from family members and lawyers.

A parliamentary source said however that the language legislation could only be debated in parliament if a majority of the Kurdish activists end their strike in return for the "gesture" by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The strike has tarnished Turkey's image at home and abroad, with the country still grappling with a nearly three-decade insurgency by the PKK in the Kurdish-dominated southeast.

Although the AKP has boosted cultural and language rights for the Kurds since taking power a decade ago many have branded the reforms "too little, too late".

The PKK, labelled a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, has been waging an armed campaign for self-rule in the southeast since 1984 in a conflict that has killed about 45,000 people.

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