By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey should release thousands of detained Kurdish activists to bolster a fledgling peace process aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency, the head of parliament's pro-Kurdish party said on Thursday.
The militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on Wednesday freed eight Turkish hostages in what was seen as a goodwill gesture during talks between the state and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan on how to resolve a 28-year-old conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
In a next step, Ocalan is expected to call a rebel ceasefire by the Kurdish new year on March 21.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has called for the release of thousands of people, including mayors, journalists, lawyers, detained for alleged ties with the PKK.
Long-running trials have failed to produce any convictions so far, and Human Rights Watch has said there is little evidence that the defendants engaged in violence.
"Steps need to be taken to lift barriers on Kurdish rights, including the thousands of prisoners," Kisanak told Reuters after a media briefing. "At this point their release has become an expectation ... and would contribute to the peace process."
The government's planned legal reforms, which a parliamentary commission began debating on Thursday, fail to go far enough, Kisanak also said.
Those changes could make it harder to prosecute people for statements or speeches made on behalf of "terrorist organizations" and are widely seen as an overture towards improving Kurdish political freedoms.
"There are anti-democratic laws, and unfortunately this package of legal reforms is insufficient. I see it as a waste of parliament's time," Kisanak told reporters.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider the PKK a terrorist group.
Kisanak said she expected Ocalan to call a ceasefire by next week's Newroz, the Kurdish new year and a traditional time of protest in the largely Kurdish southeast.
"I believe the call will be about much more than just a ceasefire," Kisanak said, but did not elaborate.
The PKK has called several ceasefires since Ocalan was captured and jailed in 1999, but violence rose sharply between June 2011 and late last year. Ocalan still yields considerable clout from his prison cell on an island near Istanbul.
The state kept previous efforts to negotiate with Ocalan secret but this time has openly acknowledged the talks, considered the best chance in years at ending a war that has held back Turkey's political and economic development.
The current undertaking includes a kind of shuttle mediation by the BDP, members of which have met with Ocalan and delivered his letters to the PKK leadership based in northern Iraq.
Kisanak said Ocalan should be allowed to communicate directly with the PKK to accelerate the process.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)