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Minority Rights Group deplores actions against local authorities providing services in languages other than Turkish

4 July 2007

Minority Rights Group deplores recent decisions by the Turkish Council of state which rule against local authorities which decide to provide services in languages other than Turkish.

The dismissal of Abdullah Demirbaş as mayor of Sur, and the disbanding of the municipal assembly in Diyarbakir, by the Turkish authorities came after the Sur municipality decided to provide services, in the areas of art, culture, environmental awareness and tourism, in Kurdish, Assyrian (or Syriac) and English as well as Turkish. A survey by the municipality last year showed that 24 percent of local residents spoke Turkish in daily life with another 72 percent speaking Kurdish, 3 percent Syriac and one percent Arabic.

The Diyarbakir chief prosecutor has demanded that Demirbaş and the Diyarbakir metropolitan mayor Osman Baydemir ( who approved the municipality's action) both be sentenced to three and a half years' prison for supposedly "abusing their power" by providing services in non-Turkish languages.

Mr Demirbaş had argued that "The most important feature of democracy is its ability to enable the citizens become "active agents" in the process of meeting their needs at the local level." He argued that each and every culture is unique and valuable and that all can contribute to an understanding of democracy without exclusion or discrimination against any group.
Demirbaş said that "Delivering services from a citizen-centered approach, local governments should be aware of the fact that the language a people use forms at the same time the spiritual world of those people… That is why most contemporary democratic societies have reflected their sensitivity to the issue of language on governmental systems in both theoretical and practical senses."

The Turkish Council of state ordered that Demirbas and the Sur municipal council be removed following a complaint lodged by the Interior Ministry. According to the Council of State, the mayor and municipality overstepped their rights in deciding to use languages other than Turkish and argued that they violated the constitution by doing so.

The mayor had been charged with 'propaganda for the aim of an terror organisation' for his statements on the need of providing services in different languages and finally he was acquitted. MRG is aware of tens of other investigations brought against mayors in the southeastern Turkey on the same basis, particularly for using Kurdish in their activities, while some municipalities in western Turkey have provided some services in several languages, including English, for their foreign residents and never been subject to any administrative and criminal investigation.