Law allowing use of Kurdish in court goes into effect
Government defends new provision amid criticism.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 30/01/13
The parliament overwhelmingly approved a law that gives Kurds the right to use their native language in the court system, formally granting a key demand that was raised in last year's hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners.
A crowd gathers outside the Diyarbakir courthouse during a hearing in the KCK case. A new law allows defendants to present testimonies in languages other than Turkish. [AFP]
The new arrangement, which allows defendants to hire translators in order to testify in the language they feel most comfortable speaking, was adopted as part of a 13-article amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Law on Execution of Penalties and Security Precautions. The measure was supported by 238 legislators, mainly from the AKP and BDP, while 41 opposition deputies voted against it.
In an immediate sign of the law's application, a court allowed Batman Mayor Nejdet Atalay, a suspect in the Diyarbakir KCK trial, to defend himself in Kurdish at a hearing last week even before the new legal regulations were published in the official gazette. Mustafa Yildiz, Atalay's lawyer, translated the testimony into Turkish.
Ahmet Aydin, head of the AKP group in parliament, told SES Türkiye the bill brings Turkey closer to democratic standards in European countries.
"Giving the right to defend oneself in his mother language is humane and democratic," he said.
The law, which was adopted amid fresh talks between the government and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was drafted in response to demands raised during last year's hunger strike, fueling hope it could lead to compromise in political negotiations.
Kurdish was officially banned in Turkey until 1991, even as Turkey granted Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities the opportunity to receive education in their own languages.
Since the accession of the AKP, restrictions on the language have been eased. A state-run TV channel broadcasts in Kurdish 24 hours a day and elective courses in the language are offered at schools. But Kurds who knew Turkish were still forced to offer court testimonies in Turkish, causing some high-profile political cases to become deadlocked.
Vahap Coskun, a law professor at Dicle University in Diyarbakir, described the law as "an important step" overall, although he criticised the measure for allowing use of Kurdish only at certain points in the legal process.
"Only in two stages can suspects use their mother language: during the announcement of indictment and the consultation on the merits. However, at the police station or during prosecution, they will be unable to express themselves in another language [aside from Turkish]," he told SES Türkiye.
He added that defendants "have to pay for the translators if they desire to use their rights according to the law."
"This [provision] is against democracy and justice," Coskun said. "It puts the suspects in a hard choice between using their mother language and damaging the family budget, which one perhaps might not be able to pay back for years in this poor part of the country."
Lawmakers said that the law is written to require defendants to pay for their own translators so that it would not be misused to draw out court proceedings.
Others, such as MHP parliamentary group deputy chairman Oktay Vural believe the law goes too far. He told SES Türkiye the new bill "legitimise[s] the sovereignty of terror" and amounts to accepting a request from the PKK on the eve of a series of hearings in KCK trials.
According to Vural, the bill is a sign that "the judicial language in the country is changing."
The AKP's Aydin, however, insisted that changing the official language of the judiciary is "out of question," adding that the government will not provide free translation services for individuals who know Turkish but prefer to speak another language in court.