Turkey approves court reform, addressing Kurdish demand

Fri Jan 25, 2013 4:30am EST
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By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey's parliament passed a law late on Thursday allowing defendants to speak Kurdish in court, addressing a key demand of Kurdish politicians as Ankara seeks to advance peace talks with the jailed rebel leader of a 28-year-old insurgency.

Kurdish and nationalist deputies clashed verbally and nearly came to blows during a tense debate over a reform seen aimed at breaking a deadlock in trials of hundreds of people accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group.

Courts have rejected suspects' efforts to use Kurdish in defending against charges of membership in a PKK umbrella group. The new legislation will allow defendants to speak in their mother tongue, if they speak it better than they do Turkish.

The court defense reform was among the demands of hundreds of jailed PKK rebels who late last year staged a hunger strike which was ended by the intervention of their leader Abdullah Ocalan, in prison on the island of Imrali, south of Istanbul.

Ocalan's intervention is viewed as having paved the way for the government to launch peace talks with him, aimed at ending a conflict in which more than 40,000 people have been killed since his separatist guerrillas took up arms in 1984.

Intelligence agency officials have held talks with Ocalan, establishing a framework for a deal under which the PKK would stop fighting, withdraw from Turkish soil and disarm, according to media reports. In return, the government would carry out reforms boosting Kurdish minority rights.

Only Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and a few officials are believed to have first-hand knowledge of the peace framework. They have not disclosed details of it but have also not denied press reports on it reported by media close to the government.

With next year's local and presidential elections in mind, Erdogan is keen to keep the process under wraps due to fears of a nationalist backlash among voters and within the state apparatus against talks with a man reviled by most Turks.   Continued...

A Kurdish man displays a picture of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan as he shouts slogan during a peace day rally in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir September 1, 2009. REUTERS/Osman Orsal