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Kurdish unrest looms large ahead of Turkey's polls

20 may 2011, 18:54
Mounting Kurdish defiance against Ankara has marred the run-up to Turkey's June 12 polls as a rare peace initiative lies in tatters, threatening to re-ignite the country's 26-year conflict, AFP reports.

So-called "civil disobedience" protests simmer in the mainly Kurdish southeast, widening a confidence gap with Ankara amid a renewed military onslaught on the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and deadly PKK attacks on police despite a truce the rebels had declared last year.

On a quest for a third straight term in power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared recenty that "there is no longer a Kurdish problem" in Turkey, further dashing hopes of a reconciliation he had promised two years ago.

A series of EU-inspired reforms have widely broadened cultural freedom for Turkey's Kurds in recent years: they can today broadcast in Kurdish, teach their language at private courses and use it in political life.

But the Kurds now want autonomy and the PKK appears bent on pressing the demand with arms.

Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who retains his influence despite being behind bars since 1999, warned last week that "all hell will break loose" unless sporadic contacts officials had had with him in prison are upgraded to full-fledged negotiations for a solution.

Spearheaded by their political leaders, Kurds now openly embrace the PKK, which Ankara lists as a terrorist group, demonstrators pelt police with petrol bombs in almost daily unrest and the faithful hold prayers outside mosques, shunning government-appointed imams.

"We have reached a point of no return... Our people have overcome fear," said Kurdish lawmaker Emine Ayna, campaigning for re-election in Diyarbakir, the main city of the southeast.

Ankara's so-called "Kurdish opening" -- announced in 2009 in a bid to cajole the PKK into laying down arms -- had raised unprecedented optimism for a peaceful end to a conflict that has claimed some 45,000 lives.

The heaviest blow to Kurdish hopes came last year when local mayors and activists were rounded up, paraded in handcuffs, and put on trial as part of a massive probe into a purported PKK-controlled network, called KCK.

Hundreds of Kurds have ended up in jail in the investigation, still going on with frequent police raids across the southeast.

Prosecutors argue the KCK made all decisions shaping Kurdish politics, syphoned off funds from local townships, extorted money from business people, orchestrated urban violence and even tried those who disobeyed orders.

Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir, one of Turkey's most popular Kurdish politicians, is among the suspects, charged for collaborating with a "terrorist organisation" and risking up to 36 years in jail.

"The probe has shattered our thesis that a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem is possible," Baydemir, who ducked detention but is banned from leaving Turkey, told AFP.

It is "almost an attempt to banish Kurds from legal politics" and represents "the gravest contradiction" to government calls on Kurds to renounce violence in favour of a democratic struggle, he added.

Baydemir says he was amazed to discover that his support for a campaign against a dam construction at a historic site, his absence from a welcoming ceremony for Erdogan and his use of certain political slogans were all seen by prosecutors as terror-related acts dictated by the KCK.

His wife and lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag dubbed some charges "absurd," pointing to a wiretap in which her encouragement of Baydemir's participation in a political function is deemed "an incitement" to heed the KCK.

"The prosecutors forget something: Reyhan has always been the boss and I'm the one who always takes instructions," Baydemir said, tongue-in-cheek.

Such jokes are only a momentary respite in the gloom the case nourishes in Diyarbakir, where police raise iron barriers arround the courthouse for each hearing to fend off demonstrators.

The latest hearing last week was adjourned in a few minutes after suspects insisted on speaking in Kurdish and lawyers boycotted the proceedings, a protest strategy that has deadlocked the case for weeks.

"We refuse to be courtroom accessories... This legal mise-en-scene must come to an end," the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Emin Aktar, said.

By Sibel Utku Bila

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