ISTANBUL — The leader of Turkey's Kurdish lawmakers startled the country Tuesday by speaking in his native language in Parliament, breaking the law in a country that has tried for decades to keep a firm grip over the restive minority amid fears of national division.
State-run television immediately cut off the live broadcast of legislator Ahmet Turk, which was to celebrate UNESCO world languages week. But his real aim was to challenge the country's policy toward its Kurdish population, a suppression of rights that has started to ease.
"Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language," he said. "I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day."
Kurdish lawmakers gave Turk a standing ovation. His party has 21 legislators in the 550-seat Parliament.
Turkish law banned the speaking of Kurdish at all until 1991, and today it is barred in schools, Parliament and other official settings on the grounds that it would divide the country along ethnic lines. Kurds, who are also present in large numbers in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria, make up about a fifth of Turkey's more than 70 million people.