Image: Sebahat Tuncel and Ufuk Uras
Osman Orsal  /  Reuters
Peace and Democracy Party members Sebahat Tuncel, center, and Ufuk Uras, right, attend a protest on Wednesday against a ruling barring 12 pro-Kurdish politicians from upcoming elections.
Image: F. Brinley Bruton
By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/20/2011 6:34:43 AM ET 2011-04-20T10:34:43

A few dozen protesters held yellow banners emblazoned with "BDP" on an icy day in Turkey's largest city. Most pedestrians in Taksim, Istanbul's main shopping district, took little notice of the men wearing dingy dark jackets and women in fringed headscarves and peasant-style skirts.

Hundreds of riot police in body armor surrounded the gathering, two water cannons and tear gas at the ready. Plain-clothed police officers clutching walkie-talkies listened to journalists' conversations and demanded reporters' names and information about who they represented.

Judging from the official response, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was outlawed and demonstrations against the detention of Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan are illegal.

They aren't, but violence has erupted at similar protests in the past.

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While there has been a lessening in tensions under the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) — which has allowed the establishment of Kurdish-language television and radio channels — February's protest was part of a decades-long standoff between the Turkish state and the country's largest minority.

Autonomy is the crux of the conflict. Kurdish nationalists demand more power to govern themselves, but successive governments have been unwilling to grant it, says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at London-based think tank Chatham House.

"Modern Turkey is a very centralized state where key powers of government are held in (the capital) Ankara," he says. "This has been the nature of the Turkish state since its founding."

Open warfare
Fearful that Kurds, who make up an estimated 20 percent of the population, would try to create an independent country, successive Turkish governments have tried to force them to assimilate. In 1980, the Kurdish language was outlawed and Ocalan's Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) kicked off a separatist insurgency four years later.

For nearly two decades until Ocalan's capture, the PKK and the military were openly at war. The conflict claimed more than 30,000 lives, depopulated swathes of the southeast and displaced millions. Torture was common and thousands were killed or disappeared at the hands of the army and pro-government death squads, according to Human Rights Watch.

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While violence has largely died down, a peace initiative launched by the AKP in 2009 has produced little progress, Kurdish leaders and rights groups say. In February, the PKK ended a six-month unilateral cease-fire and a month later fighters launched a rocket attack at a police station in the southeast.

Many Kurds had hoped that things would change under the AKP, BDP lawmaker Sebahat Tuncel told msnbc.com.

"As Kurds we decided to live together so now it is time for Turks to decide if they want to live together," she said, referring to the fact that the main Kurdish groups have renounced separatism.

In April, Human Rights Watch complained about the prosecution of hundreds of BDP members, lawmakers and activists under tough anti-terror laws.

"Without compelling evidence of violent activities, it's hard to see the prosecution's effort to link this legal party with an illegal organization as anything but a clampdown on legitimate political activity," said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Slideshow: Istanbul: An emerging power's ancient heart (on this page)

Wednesday's decision by Turkey's High Election Board to bar 12 pro-Kurdish politicians from upcoming elections because of previous criminal convictions heightened tensions. After the edict, demonstrators gathered in Istanbul and Ankara and police clashed with thousands of protesters in the Kurdish heartland in the southeast.

Tuncel was among those barred from running. The decision was based on a demonstration she attended in 2007, said Gunes Dasli, an aide to Tuncel. Authorities opened a case against the lawmaker after the protest, a fact that Tuncel and her campaign only discovered "last week," Dasli told msnbc.com.

'Pushed aside'
While some Kurds, especially those in more religious communities, voted for the governing AKP in past elections, many still feel they lack fundamental rights.

Mutha Getin, a Kurdish journalist in Istanbul, says she and her family have always been treated like second-class citizens.

Image: Mutha Getin
Jonathan Lewis
At 19, Mutha Getin was detained and spent 16 months in jail after being accused of being a member of the Kurdish Worker Party (PKK).

"We went to rent a house; they wouldn't give it to us because we were Kurdish," said 22-year-old Getin, whose family moved to Istanbul when she was five, after her brother joined the outlawed PKK. Her family hoped to escape violence in the southeast.

"We were pushed aside from society," she said.

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At 19, Getin was detained and spent 16 months in jail after being accused of being a member of the PKK. She is still regularly stopped by police and the persistent echo on her cellphone convinces her it is tapped.

"They want to show you they have the power, that they can touch you and anyone around you," she said.

This feeling of disillusionment among Kurds who have tried to be part of the political process is growing, according to Tuncel's adviser Dasli.

"Before, (the AKP told the Kurds) 'don't go to the mountain, go to Ankara, be part of the legal process,'" she said, referring to how Kurdish militants have traditionally gone "to the mountains" and joined the PKK. 

"Now, the AKP says, 'go to mountain, don't go to Ankara.'"

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Photos: Istanbul: An emerging power's ancient heart

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  1. A Turkish flag and one emblazoned with the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk wave in Taksim Square. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled after the First World War, Atatürk defeated the Allies and worked to establish a Westernized and strictly secular state. The founder of the Turkish Republic is still adored by many and his likeness is widely on display throughout the country. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A woman stands in front of the Independence Monument in Istanbul's Taksim Square. The square and the sculpture were erected in 1928 - five years after the country was founded. Situated at the heart of modern Istanbul, the square often provides the setting for official events and demonstrations. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The baroque mosque of Bosphorus Ortaköy sits adjacent the Bosphorus, an important trading route and the channel that separates Asia and Europe. Located in a cosmopolitan district that features many bars and restaurants, the area also contains functioning churches and synagogues. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Police gather on the busy shopping street of Istiklal Cadessi in Istanbul during a protest in February 2011 to commemorate the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of separatist militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). A Marxist-Leninist-inspired organization founded in the late 1970s, the PKK fought a bitter guerrilla war against the army. The conflict claimed more than 30,000 lives, depopulated swathes of the country's southeast and displaced millions. Ocalan was captured in 1999 and has since renounced the aim of creating a separate Kurdish state. The organization recently let a cease-fire lapse, citing a lack of progress in negotiations with the government. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ships and ferries cruise through the bustling Bosphorus in Istanbul. Russia exports oil and gas to the West through the channel, which is flanked by warehouses, train cars, cranes and piles of shipping containers. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, the Galata Tower (center) was used as a lookout during Ottoman times. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Haydarpasa docks on the Asian side of the Bosphorus are some of the busiest in the region. The site handles much of the container traffic that lands in Istanbul. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Istanbul’s Nisantasi district features expensive stores and high-end cafes and restaurants. Alongside the luxury, many locals make a living doing piecework or odd jobs, collecting junk, selling simit (bread rolls) or in some cases begging. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Market stalls line streets in Kadkoy, the cosmopolitan heart of Istanbul's Asian side and a 20-minute ferry ride from the ancient European center of the city. The area used to be home to large Armenian and Greek Christian populations, many of whom left amid the wave of nationalism that came after the founding of the Turkish Republic. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tea, or cay, is the standard drink day and night in the many cafes and tea-rooms throughout Turkey. Nargile cafes, where customers smoke traditional water pipe, tend to be alcohol-free. (Jonathan Lewis) Back to slideshow navigation
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