July 21, 2012 / 9:07 PM / 8 years ago

Kurdish MPs urge Turkey to free militant leader

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Kurdish members of Turkey’s parliament on Saturday called for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), saying an end to the group’s 27-year conflict with the army is impossible while he is in prison.

Joined by human rights activists, the lawmakers also told a news conference that Ocalan has not seen his lawyers or family members for a full year and that such “inhumane” conditions raised concerns about his health and security.

“If there is going to be a negotiated peace, Ocalan’s captivity must be ended,” said Emine Ayna, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “A negotiating table in which one side holds the key to the handcuffs of the other party won’t yield any results.”

Ocalan has been serving a life sentence on an island prison in the Sea of Marmara since his conviction for treason in 1999.

Since his detention clashes have become less frequent and most of the PKK is now based in northern Iraq, but violence still flares up. Fighting between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces has claimed more than 40,0000 lives since 1984.

Turkey, the European Union and the United States list the PKK as a “terrorist” organisation.

However, Turkish officials have repeatedly ruled out releasing Ocalan or moving him from jail to house arrest. Nor is there much public support for Ocalan’s release outside of the mainly Kurdish southeast.

DIFFERENT CLIMATE

Calling for his freedom would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Only last year, Ayna was convicted for remarks about the PKK that judges ruled were “terrorist propaganda”.

Until recently, even referring to the PKK leader as “Mr Ocalan” was grounds for a prison sentence.

But Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has done away with some taboos surrounding the Kurdish issue and has expanded cultural rights, including ending a ban on education in the Kurdish language. The measures are aimed at addressing Kurds’ grievances and at meeting EU criteria for membership of the 27-nation bloc.

“Everyone must accept that Mr Ocalan represents the Kurdish people,” said Aysel Tugluk, another MP from the BDP.

“Mr Ocalan has called ceasefires and for a democratic end to the conflict. It’s because of a recognition of his effectiveness that a dialogue and negotiations were launched with him.”

The government is widely believed to have held secret talks with Ocalan in an attempt to end the violence. But no such talks are said to have taken place in well over a year.

About 8,000 Kurdish politicians, lawyers, activists, youth group members and others have been arrested in connection with an investigation into the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), said BDP MP Sebahat Tuncel. Prosecutors allege the PKK set up the KCK to create its own political system in the southeast.

The PKK has dropped its original demand for an independent Kurdish homeland and is now seeing greater political autonomy for Turkey’s estimated 14 million Kurds.

Editing by Andrew Osborn

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