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Turkey: European Human Rights Court Plays Role In Ocalan Case

  • Joel Blocker

Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has been the focus of considerable attention since the start of his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win political asylum in a sympathetic country. He now faces possible execution in Turkey. One of the institutions that may play a role in determining his fate is the European Court for Human Rights, the single most important organ of the Council of Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Joel Blocker speaks with a court official about the case.

Prague, 2 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Within days of his arrest by Turkish authorities five months ago, lawyers for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan filed an application for a hearing before the European Court for Human Rights. But it will take many months before the overburdened court rules on the admissibility of the Ocalan application. If the court decides to hear his case, it will be an even longer period before it rules on the complaint itself.

Ocalan's lawyers based their plea on a number of alleged violations of the European Human Rights Convention, the document under which the Strasbourg court operates.

In a telephone interview from Strasbourg today, Ron Liddle, an adviser to the court's president, talked with RFE/RL about the case.

"Mr. Ocalan's lawyers launched an application in February of this year -- in fact, we received it on the 16th of February -- and in it a number of allegations were made, relying on different articles of the [human-rights] convention: articles two and three -- article two is the right to life, article three prohibits torture. They also relied on article five [which defines an individual's right to liberty and security] in connection with the circumstances of his arrest and the legality of his subsequent detention, and they also cited article six, which requires a fair hearing, a fair trial."

As of yesterday, according to Liddle, the court had received no further application or other communication from the lawyers for Ocalan, who was convicted of treason and terrorism earlier this week by a Turkish court and sentenced to death. Under Protocol Seven of the human-rights convention, capital punishment is banned in all member states of the Council of Europe, which now number 41, including Turkey. Also included are 18 from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Council was founded 50 years ago, and the human rights court established a year later. The court is composed of one judge from each member-state, who is elected to a six-year term by the Council's Parliamentary Assembly. Its decisions are made by majority vote. Because of a huge back-log of applications and pending cases, the court was streamlined two years ago by the Council. Even so, it moves slowly and its legal processes stretch out over months, often years.

Liddle says that the court first gave the Turkish government until July 1 to reply to, and comment on, the application by Ocalan's lawyers. That deadline was subsequently extended, on Ankara's request, until September 1. If Turkey meets the September deadline, Ocalan's lawyers will be given additional time to reply to Ankara's comments. It will still take another two or three months before the court begins its deliberations on the admissibility of the Ocalan application. Over a 16-year period ending in 1997, less than one percent of applications to the court were approved for consideration.

Liddle explains procedures in the Ocalan case.

"What has happened so far is that the court has sent a number of questions which it has requested the Turkish authorities to answer. [The court] received answers to those questions. [The court] also, at the request of Mr. Ocalan's lawyers, applied rule 39 of the rules of the court, which allows [the court] to indicate to the Turkish authorities a number of interim measures. These interim measures essentially concern [Ocalan's] access to lawyers, which was obviously an important aspect of the fairness of the proceedings against Mr. Ocalan in Turkey."

But Liddle said that the court also requested that the Turkish authorities insure Ocalan is enabled through the lawyers of his choice to exercise the right of individual petition to the European human-rights court.

"That has perhaps some indications for the present situation, where [Ocalan] is under threat of capital punishment.... The interim measure which is currently in force -- and to be absolutely clear on that: it's an indication, not an order to the Turkish authorities -- does request [they] enable him to exercise the right of petition to the European court. Now, one conclusion that one might draw from that is that the Turkish authorities would be requested [later] to suspend any execution of [the Turkish court's judgment and sentence] before the [Strasbourg] court reached a final conclusion."

The major reason why the court is so slow in its actions is that it now has human-rights jurisdiction over the 800 million people who make up the population of its 41 members. Each of them has the right to appeal to the Strasbourg court over the head of his or her government for alleged human-rights violations, and member-states are under obligation to comply with the court's judgment. The court's rulings supersede any national court decision, and no member-state has ever failed to comply with a court decision.

In that respect, Liddle notes, the decision by the Turkish Parliament last month to amend the country's constitution so that no military officer sits as a judge in a civilian court was in fact an act of compliance with a decision by the Strasbourg court. The court had earlier ruled that the presence of a military judge in civilian cases violates a citizen's right to a fair trial.

For more than two-thirds of the Council of Europe's half-century history, when it was purely West European in composition, the court had jurisdiction over less than half of the Council's current total population. But in 1990, with the entry of Hungary as the Council's first Eastern member state, the population of Council states began to expand exponentially and continued to do so for the next nine years. Russia, which became a member in 1996, alone has 150 million inhabitants.

In all cases, including Ocalan's -- if the Strasbourg court decides finally to hear his case -- the judges' decision is only what Liddle calls "declaratory." This means that it is not the court but rather the Council of Europe -- through it chief executive body, the Committee of member-states' foreign ministers -- that monitors a county's compliance with the decision.

If, for example, Turkey were to execute Ocalan against the expressed will of the Strasbourg court, it would be up to the Council, not the court, to decide on disciplinary measures. Those measures could go as far as eventual expulsion from the Council, although that has never happened in the past. But to reach that stage, Council officials tell our correspondent, it would take not months, but years.