ISTANBUL â€“ 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, ostensibly 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 only recently has started to ease.
"Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language," Turk 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.
Turkey's prime minister himself spoke a few words in Kurdish at a campaign rally over the weekend. But fears of national division â€” supported by a war between the Turkish military and a Kurdish rebel group in the 1980s and 1990s â€” prevent any concerted effort to repeal the laws.
Turkey is caught between the long-held suspicion that outsiders and minorities can threaten state unity, and its moves toward the kind of Western-style democracy that would consider a language ban an affront to human rights.
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.
"The official language is Turkish," Parliament Speaker Koksal Toptan said after Turk spoke. "This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish."
Private NTV television reported that prosecutors launched an investigation.
It was not clear whether he would face charges. As a lawmaker, he has immunity. In certain cases, a normal citizen speaking Kurdish in an official setting could go to jail.
But Tuesday's incident could hurt Turk's party, which is already accused by prosecutors of having ties to separatist Kurdish guerrillas.
Turkey's power structure could be at odds over what course to take on the speech. The Islamic-oriented government has often sparred with secular circles backed by the judiciary and the military.
In a similar incident in 1991, a Kurdish lawmaker took the oath in parliament in Kurdish. Leyla Zana was later stripped of her immunity, prosecuted on charges of separatism and links to the rebels and served a decade in prison along with three other Kurdish legislators.
But heavy-handed action by the state this time could backfire, exposing it to accusations of authoritarian behavior and further alienating Kurds ahead of local elections on March 29.
Turk's speech was also a vote-getting stunt, as the elections will determine whether his Democratic Society Party can keep southeastern strongholds in the face of an aggressive campaign from the governing party.
Speaking in Kurdish, Turk described how he was jailed during a 1980 military coup and was beaten for speaking Kurdish to visiting relatives who knew no other language.
He also commented on the Kurdish spoken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a campaign rally on Saturday in Diyarbakir, the main city in the mostly Kurdish southeast.
"When (Kurdish party) members salute someone in their own language, they are prosecuted or investigated. When a mayor speaks to his people in their own language, he is prosecuted," Turk said. "But when the prime minister speaks Kurdish, nobody says anything. We don't think this is right. This is a two-faced approached."
Erdogan had referred to Turkey's first 24-hour Kurdish-language television, launched Jan. 1. At the rally, and on the day of the TRT6 channel's inauguration, Erdogan said in Kurdish: "May TRT6 be beneficial."
Some commentators said the prime minister had broken the law, but prosecutors did not launch a probe.
Erdogan's efforts to court Kurdish support with economic aid and promises of more freedom has sapped some of the support for Turk's party.
The European Union, for which Turkey is a candidate, has pushed the country for more Kurdish rights.
But the language issue has also come up in EU member Spain, where rules in the national parliament require lawmakers to speak Spanish. A few years ago, a Catalan nationalist spoke Catalan, and the speaker reprimanded him.
Such cases, however, are rare.
Associated Press reporters Suzan Fraser, Selcan Hacaoglu and Emre Baran contributed to this report.