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Turkey's forbidden tongue

Why a politician risked jail when he spoke publicly in his native language, Kurdish.

Pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party leader Ahmet Turk addresses his party deputies during their meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Feb. 24, 2009. Turkey's state television cut off live broadcasting on Tuesday when Turk, the head of the largest pro-Kurdish party, began addressing his parliamentary deputies in the Kurdish language. (Stringer/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — A politician’s illegal use of Kurdish during a speech in the parliament has stirred a debate on minority rights in Turkey, a nation that has worked to keep a tight grip on its Kurdish population.

Ahmet Turk, who heads the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party, began his speech in Turkish but then switched to his native Kurdish, violating laws that bar the language in official settings and causing Turkey’s state television to cut off the live broadcast.

“Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language. I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day,” he said to a standing ovation from his party, which holds 21 of the 550 seats in Parliament.

Others were less receptive of Turk’s message, labeling the speech a stunt to drum up support ahead of local elections on March 29.

"The official language is Turkish," the parliament speaker, Koksal Toptan, said after Turk spoke. "This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish."

Turk said he gave the speech in Kurdish in recognition of UNESCO world languages week.

It is unclear whether Turk will face charges. Recent history shows his status as a member of parliament is no guarantee of diplomatic immunity.

In 1991, Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament, spoke the last line of her oath in Kurdish. She was later stripped of her immunity and charged with subversion and having links to the militant Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK. She served 10 years in jail.

Under law, only Turkish can be spoken in political addresses. However, on a recent trip to the southeast to promote the launch of a Kurdish-language channel on Turkish television, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke a few words of Kurdish.

“When [Kurdish party] members salute someone in their own language, they are prosecuted or investigated. When a mayor speaks to his people in their own language, he is prosecuted,” Turk said. “But when the prime minister speaks Kurdish, nobody says anything. We don’t think this is right. This is a two-faced approach.”

The use of Kurdish can be a powerful political tool in the predominately Kurdish southeast region, where a substantial portion of the population does not speak Turkish.