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Turkey: European Court Says Kurdish Leader Received Unfair Trial

EU-hopeful Turkey may now feel pressure to grant Ocalan a new trial The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled today that Turkish authorities granted Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an unfair trial six years ago when he was sentenced to death for leading an armed insurgency. Although the decision of the Strasbourg-based court is not legally binding, it is likely to put pressure on EU-hopeful Turkey to grant its most famous prisoner a new trial.

Prague, 12 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The verdict was widely expected in Ankara, where government officials had been trying to play down the impact of a court ruling in Ocalan's favor.

In remarks printed in the English-language "Turkish Daily News" on Tuesday, Justice Minister and government spokesman Cemil Cicek said that it would not be "the end of the world" if the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) were to find that Ocalan received an unfair trial in 1999.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that same day said he hoped the ECHR's final verdict would be "acceptable" to the Turkish public.
Ankara blames the PKK for the death of 35,000 people between 1984-1999, although it is generally believed more than half of those killed were Kurdish guerrillas.

Gul also said that, as the former leader of what he called a "terrorist organization," Ocalan would receive the same punishment "even if tried 100 times."

Roderick Liddell, the ECHR's head of external relations and communication, told RFE/RL the findings reached by the court's 17-member Grand Chamber were similar to those reached two years ago by a lower panel.

The main findings, Liddell said, were violations of articles 5.4 and 5.3 of the European Convention on Human Rights -- the right to have the lawfulness of the detention decided speedily by a court, and the right to be brought promptly before a judge.

"The applicant was kept in police custody for a number of days before being brought before a judge," Liddell said. "In addition, the court found that the applicant had not had a fair trial in two respects -- firstly because he had not been tried by an independent and impartial tribunal, insofar as there was, at some of the trials at least, a military member of the bench and, secondly, because he had not had adequate time and facilities for preparation for his defense and he had not had full access to legal assistance."

Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg, one of Ocalan's lawyers, Markus Mueller, expressed satisfaction at the court ruling, saying, "It's been a long journey and an odyssey of justice for Mr. Ocalan. But I think that at the end of the day, he's got the right result."

Known among Kurdish militants by his nom de guerre of Apo, Ocalan founded the PKK in the late 1970s after studying at Ankara's University of Political Sciences.

From the early 1980s on, the PKK spearheaded an armed insurgency in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces. Ankara blames the group for the death of 35,000 people between 1984 and 1999, even though it is generally admitted that more than half of those killed during those years were Kurdish guerrillas.

In February 1999, Turkish special forces abducted the PKK leader in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where he had fled after stops that had brought him from his Syrian refuge to Moscow, Rome, and Athens.

Despite Ocalan's apologetic defense and insistence on describing the PKK's violent militancy as a mistake, he was sentenced to death.

Three years ago, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment following Turkey's decision to abolish the death penalty as part of its reforms to join the European Union.

Ocalan has been kept in solitary confinement on the Sea of Marmara's Imrali prison island, where he is the only inmate.

The PKK leader has repeatedly complained that his treatment at Imrali contravenes international human rights norms.

Liddell of the ECHR said the court's Grand Chamber found no violation of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to the conditions of Ocalan's transfer from Kenya to Turkey, or with regard to the conditions of his current detention.

He said, however, that the court did note a final violation in the case related to the imposition of the death penalty. The court found no violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life.

"The death penalty was, of course, not in fact implemented," Liddell said. "But [the court] found a violation of Article 3, which prohibits ill-treatment on the basis that the death penalty had been imposed following an unfair trial."

Although the ECHR's verdict is not binding, it is likely to put pressure on Turkey -- which is a member of the Council of Europe and is seeking to join the European Union -- to see that Ocalan receives a new trial.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) was the first to react to the court's verdict.

Speaking to reporters in Ankara, AKP Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat suggested Ankara might take the necessary legal steps to address the ECHR's concerns.

"The Turkish republic is a state based on the rule of law and it will take the procedures required from a state based on the rule of law," he said.

Firat said the Turkish judiciary would ultimately decide on the steps to be taken, adding that this might require parliament to amend the country's legislation.

In comments broadcast on Turkish state television, Justice Minister Cicek said Ankara would do "what it has to do," adding that Turkish citizens did not need to fear that Ocalan will be released.

Turkey's influential army generals did not attempt to conceal their frustration at the ECHR verdict. The deputy chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces, General Ilker Basbug, told reporters in Ankara that the military had fought Kurdish rebels for so many years that "one shouldn't expect them to be impartial about the PKK."

Liddell told RFE/RL the judgment reached by the ECHR does not spell out expressly what Ankara might be required to do to address its concerns. He said that it is up to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to decide on possible recommendations to the Turkish government.