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Kurdish language course on hold in Turkey

AFP, 2003-111-06

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) - Aydin Unesi's language school is ready to start teaching Kurdish: He has remodeled six classrooms in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, course books have been ordered, and 200 students have already signed up.

But nearly seven months after applying to open the school, Turkish authorities haven't given Unesi the go-ahead for Kurdish courses, legalized last year as part of Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

No language school currently has permission to offer Kurdish language courses, according to human rights groups.

The delays highlight Turkey's uphill struggle to implement reforms that have long been approved on paper by politicians but are still lingering in the Turkish bureaucracy.

On Wednesday, the European Union praised Turkey for the ``far-reaching changes to the political and legal system'' enacted so far. But the EU report said Turkey must still work to implement the reforms before December 2004, when EU leaders decide whether to open accession negotiations with Turkey.

Parliament last year expanded rights for the country's more than 12 million Kurds - a fifth of Turkey's population - by allowing broadcasts and courses in Kurdish.

But the EU report said: ``So far, the reforms adopted in these areas have produced little practical effect.''

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which assumed power last year, has made Turkey's EU candidacy a top priority and has pledged to implement reforms by the end of 2004.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul commenting on the EU criticism about implementation, admitted the problems and promised to solve them.

``It is true, there are shortcomings in implementation but these will be overcome in the coming months,'' Gul said in Ankara. ``We want the Turkish people to reach the standards of the people living in Germany, England, France.''

Unesi said he applied on April 17 to open his Kurdish language school in the southeastern province of Batman, but little has happened since then.

``We're 100 percent ready,'' Unesi said. ``Local education authorities in Batman have approved our application, but we're still waiting for an answer from Ankara.''

Husnu Ondul, the president of Turkey's independent Human Rights Association, said eight other schools, in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, are in similar positions. None has been able to regularly give courses, he added.

``The reforms just aren't being implemented,'' Ondul said.

Earlier this year, Unesi said he managed to secure temporary permission for a two-week Kurdish course as part of local festival, but hasn't given courses since.

On Wednesday, Unesi's school began preregistration for regular courses, hoping it could help the school's cause.

``Officials should see by the turnout here that there's definite interest,'' he said. Around 200 people signed up on Wednesday, Unesi said. Most are university students and graduates.

Turkey has been extremely reluctant to allow the language courses as well as broadcasts in Kurdish, fearing they could divide the country along ethnic lines.

Turkey also has been concerned in recent months by Iraqi Kurds' growing influence in the neighboring nation since the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein, fearing it could spark new fighting with Kurdish rebels.

The rebels waged a 15-year war for autonomy in southeastern Turkey, in which some 37,000 people have been killed. The rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1999 after the capture of guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, but there has been a recent increase in fighting.

Kurdish language TV and radio broadcasts have also been held up by bureaucratic hurdles.

Last year, parliament legalized the broadcasts, but they never went into effect. So far the stations have been limited to music and music videos.

Turkey also recently opened the way for Kurdish families to give their children Kurdish names, but the Interior Ministry barred the names from including non-Turkish letters such as ``x, w and q,'' which are common in Kurdish.

Unesi said he's still hopeful about the language courses.

``For seven months, authorities been saying the courses will start this month,'' Unesi said. ``We hope this month they actually will.''

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