Diyarbakir, Turkey: The police here in southeastern Turkey will no longer arrest someone simply for speaking Kurdish. But when university students across the country circulated petitions, requesting optional courses on the Kurdish language, the authorities clamped down hard.
More than 1,300 students have been detained by police -- often while trying to present the signed petitions to the rectors of the universities they attend. According to human-rights activists, more than 200 students have been accused of violating anti-terrorist laws. Often the formal charge is supporting an illegal organization, in this case the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
Three years ago, after the PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured and sentenced to death -- a sentence not yet carried out -- the group called off a bloody 15-year rebellion for self-rule for the Kurdish-populated southeastern region of the country. But the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's 65 million people, continue pressing for more rights.
The students who have been arrested recently are being tried at special state-security courts across Turkey and face a maximum prison sentence of seven and a half years. In separate university disciplinary actions, about 300 students have been expelled or suspended from their studies.
"I can speak Kurdish, but I can't read Kurdish poetry or literature," says Harun Ece, a student of archival science, at Marmara University, in Istanbul. The university suspended Mr. Ece for a year for circulating a petition favoring Kurdish courses. Mr. Ece is also one of 28 students being tried together in a state security court in Istanbul for their role in the petition drive. "Unless we can study it," he says, "Kurdish language and culture will disappear."
Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic, in 1923, the authorities have tried to wipe out the distinct identity of the Kurds, Turkey's largest minority. Until a change in legislation, in 1991, the use of Kurdish was totally banned in numerous situations, such as speaking or singing in public, and publishing.
Kurds live in neighboring parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where they have also suffered repression, with the exception of a portion of Iraq that Kurds control with the help of the United Nations. Yet only Turkey, home to the largest Kurdish population, has gone to great lengths to eradicate the Kurds' culture.
Today officials sometimes try to justify the ban on the use of Kurdish in education by claiming the language is too primitive. According to Nurset Aras, a professor of medicine and rector of the University of Ankara, "Kurdish is not a true language. It is not adequate for academic education."
Linguists dismiss the notion. Indeed, Kurdish has a literary tradition that goes back at least three and a half centuries. Mem û Zîn, the names of two lovers, is an epic story of tragic love written by the Kurdish poet and Muslim scholar Ehmedî Xanî at the end of the 17th century. It is considered one of the greatest classics of Kurdish literature.
Kurdish is closely related to Persian, the language of Iran, but unrelated to Turkish. The language is taught today at several European universities.
In the last few years, the harshest restrictions on speaking and publishing in Kurdish have been relaxed, and something of a cultural renaissance is under way. Young people gather in Kurdish cafes to drink strong tea and listen to a blend of modern and traditional Kurdish music and discuss the growing number of Kurdish books sold legally.
The petition campaign began last fall, shortly after a key change to Turkey's Constitution. In October, in response to urging by the European Union, Turkey amended its Constitution to end a ban on broadcasting in languages other than Turkish. So far, however the government has authorized very little Kurdish-language programming.
In November, a group of students at Istanbul University started collecting signatures from their classmates on an appeal for optional Kurdish courses. Within weeks, students at about half of Turkey's 53 public universities did the same. Despite the threat of expulsion, about 12,000 students across Turkey have signed a petition.
A few students subsequently withdrew their names under pressure from the authorities.
At the same time, some parents circulated petitions asking for Kurdish lessons in their children's public schools. Some of the parents have also been arrested.
Mistreatment of students in police custody appears to have been widespread, especially outside the largest city, Istanbul. Many complain of having been blindfolded during questioning, and of being hit by police demanding that they admit they were following the orders of the PKK.
According to Amnesty International, Mürsel Sargut, a 19-year-old literature student at Istanbul University who was arrested last November 30, was tortured while in police custody. He was allegedly stripped and sprayed with pressurized water and then raped with a nightstick by police after he refused to "confess" to being a member of the PKK.
Orhan Tung, press counselor at the Turkish Embassy in London, says that "80 to 90 percent" of allegations of mistreatment are fabrications. Yet he admits that the Turkish security forces have a history of abusing prisoners. "There has been steady improvement over the last five or six years," he says. "We admit we still have a long way to go."
Indicted students in Diyarbakir and Istanbul questioned recently by a reporter said they circulated the petitions on their own initiative and had no contact with the PKK. "It is not important who organized it," says Tahir Elçi, a human-rights lawyer representing three of the charged students in Diyarbakir. "The right to petition the government is guaranteed by the Constitution."
Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit set the tone of the response to the petition drive earlier this year when he denounced demands for Kurdish study at schools and universities as "aimed at dividing Turkey." He added, "We cannot accept it. It's impossible."
The authorities justify the crackdown on students by saying it is necessary to prevent moves toward a breakup of Turkey. A government-sponsored declaration that the rectors of all 77 public and private universities were required to sign in February claims the petitions represent a continuation of the PKK's rebellion by nonmilitary means. "The right of petition is being exploited as an insidious substitute for murder and terror," it says.
The declaration goes on to state that if students cannot be persuaded to withdraw their support for the petition, they will be considered "accomplices within our universities of the terrorist network."
Only a handful of faculty members have protested the policy. Those who have spoken out are generally academics with domestic or international reputations big enough to provide a degree of protection from dismissal or prosecution. Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics at Istanbul University and a frequent commentator on Turkish television, rejects the authorities' argument that repression is needed to keep Turkey from being torn apart. "It's just the opposite," he says.
"Only democracy can maintain the integrity of the country."
The decision to deal with the petition drive so harshly has disappointed those calling for conciliatory steps to end the threat of renewed fighting in the southeast. Human-rights activists, trade unionists, and other political moderates favor a more democratic and less militaristic approach to the Kurds. The Turkish government's harsh approach to the petitioners has also placed additional embarrassing obstacles in the way of its efforts to join the European Union.
Before the European Union will invite Turkey to join, it is demanding "respect and protection of minorities, including the right to have education and broadcasting in their own language," says Jean-Christophe Filori, the spokesman on enlargement issues for the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union. But Turkey has shown "no flexibility on the education issue," he says.
The European Union's 15 members have a checkered history of policies toward the languages of their own minority groups. Until a few decades ago, some countries -- France is a prime example -- were hostile toward minority languages and banned their use in public schools. But "in the last 20 years in Europe there has been a great flowering of support for minority languages," says Robert Dunbar, a lecturer in law at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and a specialist in language rights. French public schools in regions with minority populations now provide optional lessons in the local regional language, like Basque, Breton, or Corsican.
In Turkey, however, even private Kurdish lessons remain illegal. "Turkey appears to be the only European state which prohibits teaching in a minority language," says Mr. Dunbar. In February he took part in an eight-day fact-finding visit to Turkey organized by the Kurdish Human Rights Project, an independent, London-based group. The resulting report, which he co-wrote, is highly critical of Turkey's language policy.
No Turkish university has been allowed to teach or carry out research into Kurdish language, literature, or culture. The Kurdish Institute, a small independent research center established in Istanbul in 1992, is legal but is constantly harassed by the authorities. The police sealed the institute's offices for four months this year after prosecutors charged the institute's managers with the criminal offense of providing Kurdish-language lessons. A judge recently exonerated them.
Hasan Kaya, a former schoolteacher dismissed for promoting the Kurdish language, is chairman of the institute. He says "no Turkish academics are allowed to participate in Kurdish-language research, but a few foreign scholars come here regularly and quietly carry out their research."
Sefa Öztürk was suspended for three months from her studies at Yildiz Technical University, in Istanbul, for supporting the petition campaign.
University administrators informed her that she was being punished for "threatening the indivisible unity of the country," the reason given many of the other suspended students.
But unlike most of the other students who have been punished, Ms. Öztürk is an ethnic Turk. After she was charged with the criminal offense of supporting an illegal organization, her parents broke off relations with her. But Ms. Öztürk says she does not regret her actions.
"For me the idea that a person should have the right to an education in their mother tongue is fundamental," she says. "I did what was right, and my conscience is clear."