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Turkey: EU Hails Release Of Four Kurdish Activists

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Turkey has freed from prison four prominent Kurdish activists, including a former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, in a move that the EU hailed as progress toward key democratic and human rights reforms. The move, which coincided with the first Kurdish-language broadcasts on Turkish state television, precedes a European Union decision on whether to start entry talks with Ankara.

Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Former Nobel Peace Prize nominee Leyla Zana spoke as she and three other Kurdish former lawmakers -- Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak -- walked free yesterday after a decade spent in Ankara's Ulucanlar prison.

"A new era is beginning in this country, a new page is being turned," she said.

Zana became a symbol to Kurds and some Europeans for advocating nonviolent tactics to push for increased rights for Turkish Kurds. She and the others were serving a 15-year sentence for alleged ties to Kurdish guerrillas. EU officials and human rights groups had called their trials unfair and Brussels said it could spoil Ankara's bid to join the EU.
The court’s release order and the Kurdish broadcasts were no small steps for Turkey, which fought a 15-year war with separatist Kurdish guerrillas that killed 37,000 people, mostly Kurds. Turkish authorities have long said that allowing Kurdish education or broadcasts would promote separatism.


But yesterday, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Vergheugen said that their release clearly shows that Turkey is making progress in adopting reforms needed to join the EU. Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek was quoted as saying, "This was the last bargaining chip in the hands of those who were seeking excuses [to quash] Turkey's EU bid."

Jean-Pierre Darnis, an analyst with Rome's Istituto d'Affari Internazionali, agreed that the release would help Turkey as the European Commission gets set to decide later this year whether to start EU accession talks with Ankara. "It is, in fact, important because it's a clear sign on the human rights topic, that Turkey is really putting into facts some policies that it said it would adopt in order to fit with [European Union accession] criteria," Darnis told RFE/RL.

Zana and the others were released on the order of an appeals court pending a retrial.

Hours before their release, Turkish state television aired its first-ever broadcasts in the once-taboo Kurdish language in yet another bow to EU reform demands. Until 1991, speaking Kurdish was outlawed in Turkey.

The court’s release order and the Kurdish broadcasts were no small steps for Turkey, which fought a 15-year war with separatist Kurdish guerrillas that killed 37,000 people, mostly Kurds. Turkish authorities have long said that allowing Kurdish education or broadcasts would promote separatism.

Zana incensed fellow legislators in 1991 when, after her election, she took the oath of office sporting a hair band of yellow, green, and red -- colors used by Kurdish rebels on their flags. She also spoke Kurdish, defying a ban on the official use of the language.

Zana and her colleagues were convicted in 1994 on charges of supporting separatism and collaborating with outlawed Kurdish rebels. Their case was retried and upheld after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2001 they did not get a fair hearing. The appeals court overturned that decision on 7 June on technical grounds, setting a new trial date on for 8 July. Amnesty International hailed the decision, but urged authorities to drop the retrial and abandon the case.

As for Turkey's EU bid, French-born analyst Darnis believes that the European Commission will agree to open accession talks with Turkey. But he said talks could last for up to a decade and ultimately fail, given both the enormity of the reform tasks still facing Ankara as well as widespread skepticism in Europe over Turkey's EU bid.

But he added that in his opinion, the EU would be making a mistake not to bring in Turkey. "For me, the advantages are huge, especially the political ones. You effectively would show that Europe is no longer just a club for white Christians, but an important secular idea," he said. "Plus, you would then extend the economic, political, and democratic integration to the Middle East and begin to find ways through [European] enlargement to resolve the [region's] various conflicts. If Turkey does its part -- reforms on human rights, justice, and the power of the military -- then that would simply be a great thing."

For now, analysts say it will be interesting to see how, if at all, the release of the Kurdish former lawmakers and the government's decision to permit Kurdish-language broadcasts will affect the country's ongoing struggle with Kurdish separatists.

The rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire in 1999 after the capture of leader Abdullah Ocalan, but recently announced an end to the truce. Yesterday, government troops killed three rebels in a clash in Turkey's southeast.
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