By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The Turkish government has said it will soon submit to parliament a reform allowing defendants to use languages other than Turkish in court, a key demand of jailed Kurdish militants whose hunger strike entered its 56th day on Tuesday.
The refusal of courts to allow defendants who speak Turkish to use Kurdish in their defense has been a source of controversy in ongoing court cases against hundreds of defendants accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group.
Some 700 Kurdish inmates in dozens of prisons are refusing solid food to try to exert pressure on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government to grant greater Kurdish minority rights and better conditions for a jailed militant leader.
The inmates are consuming sugared water and vitamins that will prolong their lives and the protest by weeks, but Turkey's main medical association has warned that fatalities are possible from around 60 days into the hunger strike.
"A person will be able to defend themselves in court in the language in which they can best express themselves," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters late on Monday after a cabinet meeting where the issue was discussed.
"The prime minister has given the order to our justice minister to develop this and send it rapidly to parliament to become law," he said, saying that the legal revision would be made in the coming days.
Arinc stressed that the ruling AK Party had already promised to enact the reform in a booklet distributed at its congress in September, seeking to dispel the idea that it was acting in response to the hunger strike.
Erdogan's government has boosted Kurdish cultural and language rights since taking power a decade ago, but Kurdish politicians are seeking greater political reform, including steps towards autonomy for mainly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.
"DON'T UPSET US"
Arinc called for the inmates to end their protest.
"Don't upset us and our nation," he said. "Please end these strikes in the knowledge that there is a democratic atmosphere in Turkey where your demands can be discussed."
Erdogan has taken a hard line on the protest, describing it as blackmail and a "show". The head of the Turkish Medical Association has warned that such comments risked hardening the inmates' resolve.
The protesters' main demand is improved jail conditions for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul. Most of the inmates have been convicted of PKK membership.
The protests follow a surge in violence between Turkey and the PKK, which took up arms in 1984 with the aim of carving out an independent Kurdish state. Turkish Kurds now number around 15 million, or around one fifth of the population.
The PKK has staged some of its bloodiest attacks in more than a decade this year as tensions grow between Turkey and its neighbour Syria. Turkey has accused Syria of arming the PKK to punish Erdogan for criticizing President Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown of a popular uprising.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.
Erdogan has said the inmates are being manipulated by "merchants of death", a reference to the PKK and Kurdish politicians, and has accused Kurdish politicians of ordering the militants to go on strike while they themselves feast on kebabs.
More than 100 leftist inmates died in a hunger strike more than a decade ago, 30 of whom were killed when security forces stormed jails to end the protest against isolation in cells.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Andrew Osborn)