SULAIMANI, Iraq, July 27 (UPI) -- The recent sentencing of the Kurdish activist Leyla Zana to 10 years in prison for a speech she gave in 2007 to commemorate the Kurdish New Year has prompted protests in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir.
In the speech, Zana, who is the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish Parliament, praised Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, known as the PKK. Under Turkish anti-terror laws, it is illegal to speak of Ocalan using adulatory terms. The Turkish government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group.
The prison sentence, which was handed down by the high criminal court in Zana's home district of Diyarbakir, has triggered no shortage of confusion among a Kurdish population that has witnessed top Turkish government officials give the appearance of embracing Zana in recent months. In June, Zana was granted an unprecedented meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"Since the Kurdish issue in Turkey is becoming more and more complicated, since the Turkish government is seen to be tiring of this protracted battle and since Zana is recognized as a symbol of peace, the Turkish officials may be obliged to listen to her opinions about the Kurdish issue," said Ahmed Abdulla, a journalist who covers Kurdish issues in northern Iraq.
Zana's meeting with Erdogan marked the first time a Turkish prime minister or high-ranking official has met with a Kurdish activist to discuss Kurdish issues. Kurds make up nearly 20 percent of Turkey's population but armed conflicts between Kurdish militant groups and the Turkish military and government have resulted in tension, both on the ground and between political and military leaders.
The meeting followed a particularly violent year in Turkey's relations with the Kurds. In August 2011, a Turkish warplane killed a family of seven Iraqi Kurds who were traveling in a pickup truck from a small village in Iraq to the city of Rania. Among the dead were four children, one of them a 2-month-old infant. Along the border between Turkey and Iraq four months later, a Turkish drone killed 35 Kurds allegedly involved in cigarette smuggling.
Zana's meeting with the prime minister was largely viewed by Turkish Kurds as a positive development in the contentious relationship with the Turkish government.
In a statement laying out the contents of her exchange with Erdogan, Zana said she pushed for diplomatic meetings between the PKK and the Turkish government. She also asked that Ocalan be transferred from prison to house arrest. Erdogan showed no signs of buckling. In a news conference afterward, he vowed to continue pushing for the eradication of the PKK.
Zana's prison sentence was to begin immediately but she hasn't been jailed because she enjoys parliamentary immunity, although that could be removed by court order.
This isn't the first time Zana has come under fire for advocating for Kurdish rights. In 1994, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking Kurdish in the Turkish Parliament after taking her oath of office.
Emboldened by Zana's meeting with Erdogan, thousands of Kurds, including most of Turkey's Kurdish MPs, organized a protest in Diyarbakir advocating for basic rights for Kurds, but the police moved in and arrested more than 100 protesters.
"The recent protest in Diyarbakir that was cracked down by the police shows that the meeting has not had any result yet but I still believe that the meeting is a good start," Abdulla said.