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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 17:36 GMT
Kurds wait for Turkish sea change
By Ebru Dogan
BBC News Online

More than 16 months after Turkey's parliament lifted a ban on the teaching of Kurdish, entrepreneurs hoping to launch language courses are still trying to climb a mountain of red tape.

Woman registers for Kurdish courses at a language school in the predominantly Kurdish city of Batman
About 200 people have pre-registered for courses in Batman
Aydin Unesi does not blame the authorities for turning him down repeatedly since he first applied in April.

First, the problem was the doors of his premises in Batman, a predominantly Kurdish city in south-east Turkey - they were only 85 centimetres wide rather than 90, as safety regulations demand.

The inspectors also complained about the absence of Turkish flags in the six classrooms.

Later, when his file finished its laborious tour of Batman authorities and reached the capital, Ankara, Education Ministry experts said that there was no mention of fire escapes - and sent it back.

Mr Unesi remembers discussing the building's two fire escalators at length with the experts. He does not know why they were not referred to in the report.

Non-existent Kurds

"From a legal point of view, they are absolutely right, standards have to be kept to protect people. That doesn't bother me," he told the BBC.

"What bothers me a bit is that we are singled out."

Bureaucrats come up with obstacles not envisaged in the original law. They resist change, they resist democracy
Head of Turkey's Human Rights Association Husnu Ondul
He says that a driving school in the same building received a permit within 15 days of applying.

Turkey legalised Kurdish courses and broadcasts in August 2002 as part of a series of reforms aimed at paving the way for membership of the EU.

The move was hailed as revolutionary in a country which once denied the very existence of its 14 million ethnic Kurds, calling them "mountain Turks".

For decades, it was feared that any expression of Kurdish identity could eventually lead to secession, but those fears mostly subsided when the Kurdish rebel campaign came to an end in 1999 with the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

By then, the 15-year conflict had taken more than 30,000 lives.

Testing the waters

The head of Turkey's Human Rights Association, Husnu Ondul, thinks the current government deserves praise for recent improvements to the original Kurdish-language reforms passed by its predecessor.

He says it is bureaucrats who are to blame for the fact that they currently exist only on paper.

Recep Tayip Erdogan
Mr Erdogan was "disturbed" by a court ruling banning Kurdish posters
"They come up with obstacles not envisaged in the original law. They resist change, they resist democracy," he says.

One example he gives is what the Turkish media has dubbed the "poster crisis".

His association distributed posters with "Peace will Prevail" slogans in Turkish and Kurdish on 10 December, the International Human Rights Day, in 33 "pilot cities" in Turkey.

Mr Ondul says that they had decided to "test the waters again" following their success on 1 September, World Peace Day, when they were able to distribute posters in Kurdish in two major cities without problems.

But no sooner had he told Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul how well the second experiment had gone, than a court in a remote south-eastern town ruled that the posters violated Turkey's national unity.

The ruling was faxed to police headquarters across the country, and the posters were removed.

"This means that one local court sets human rights standards for the whole country," says Mr Ondul.


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heard the news at the EU summit in Brussels and said he was "disturbed".

One applicant had to knock down his windows recently, and enlarge them by about the width of a hand, before relaunching his bid
The outspoken Speaker of the Parliament, Bulent Arinc, went further and talked of "some elements in Turkey which cannot stomach the reforms".

They must also have been disturbed when a human rights awareness meeting in Kayseri, in central Turkey, was raided by police last weekend - only to find that it was organised by the prime minister's office in association with the EU, and attended by the governor and senior police figures.

Despite a general easing of curbs on Kurdish, especially in big cities like Diyarbakir, attitudes are slow to change.

For example, there are still no Kurdish broadcasts, partly because the state broadcaster is reluctant to take on the challenge.

The broadcasting regulator has also failed to come up with a strategy that is acceptable to the government.

Then there is "the case of the letters" - Kurds have been officially allowed since September to take Kurdish names, but cannot use the letters "x,w or q", which are common in Kurdish but do not exist in Turkey's version of the Latin alphabet.

Kurdish activists have gone to court to press their case, but without success.

Still hope

As for Kurdish language courses, the authorities are currently considering nine applications.

Mr Unesi is one of two people who has received a permit to open a school - but neither has yet received permission to start teaching.

One applicant had to knock down his windows recently, and enlarge them by about the width of a hand, before relaunching his bid.

Despite the delays, Mr Unesi, the director of the course in Batman, remains optimistic.

Up to 200 people have pre-registered for his course, mostly well-educated Kurds, such as teachers, engineers and businessmen but also Turkish psychiatrists from the local hospital.

They are all waiting for the green light.

Turkey allows Kurdish conference
05 Nov 03  |  Europe
Turkey detains Kurd leaders
22 Sep 03  |  Europe
Rebel move 'sends mixed signals'
02 Sep 03  |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
14 Oct 03  |  Country profiles

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