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Turkey: Court Ruling Over Kurdish Group Could Embarrass Ruling Party

Prague, 13 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Constitutional Court today outlawed the country's largest legal Kurdish party for allegedly threatening national interests.

Addressing reporters in Ankara, Constitutional Court Chairman Mustafa Bumin said the decision to close down the People's Democracy Party (HADEP) was based on the group's suspected links with the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). "It has been established that HADEP has become the center point of activities against the indivisible integrity of the state by, among other things, aiding and abetting the PKK terrorist organization. Therefore, [HADEP] must be closed down in conformity with Articles 101 and 103 of the law on political parties and under Articles 68 and 69 of the constitution," Bumin said.

Article 68 of the Turkey's 1982 constitution reads that activities of political parties must not conflict with the state's integrity or with its democratic and secular principles. It also says parties should not aim to establish "dictatorship of any kind" or incite Turkish citizens to criminal activities.

In the mid-1980s, the neo-Marxist PKK waged an armed separatist campaign in Turkey's southeast. Violence stopped in the late 1990s after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and officially announced the end of Turkey's Kurdish armed insurrection. PKK fighters have sought refuge in northern Iraq's Kurdish areas, providing ground for Turkish armed cross-border forays.

In April of last year, the PKK changed its name to the Kurdish Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK). But Turkish authorities say the group remains a terrorist organization and refutes KADEK's claims that it has decided to achieve its objectives through peaceful means.

Bumin today said it had been proven that HADEP had "physically" helped PKK militants.

Bumin did not elaborate further on evidence gathered against HADEP, which has come under constant state scrutiny despite its legal status. Since the foundation of the party in 1994, dozens of its members have been killed, imprisoned, or legally harassed.

Also today, the Constitutional Court imposed a five-year political ban on 46 HADEP leaders, including former Chairman Murat Bozlak. The decision, however, does not apply to current party chairman Ahmet Turan Demir.

Bumin also said the party's assets would be confiscated. "It has been decided that the legal existence of the party will cease on the date the verdict will be announced. Under Article 107 of the law on political parties, all the party's assets will be transferred to the State Treasury," Bumin said.

Shortly after the Constitutional Court announced its verdict, Turkey's Anadolu news agency reported that Chief Prosecutor Sabih Kanadoglu had filed a case to close another pro-Kurdish group, the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP). Kanadoglu claims DEHAP's activities contradict Turkey's "principles of democracy, equality, and rule of law."

DEHAP served as an umbrella formation for HADEP in last November's early parliamentary elections. Although the DEHAP-HADEP alliance performed well in Turkey's mainly Kurdish provinces, finishing first in many electoral constituencies, it failed to overcome the 10 percent national threshold needed to enter parliament.

Legal proceedings against HADEP have been ongoing since 1999. It was not immediately clear why the Constitutional Court's decision was delayed for so long.

Today's court ruling is particularly untimely as the Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces the prospect of renewed unrest among Turkey's 12 million-strong Kurdish population.

Under strong pressure from the United States to assist U.S. troops in any military action against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Turkey's AKP government is considering dispatching tens of thousands of soldiers into Iraq's Kurdish areas.

Convinced that war is inevitable, Ankara's civilian and military leaders fear any trouble in northern Iraq -- let alone the creation of an autonomous or independent Kurdistan -- could reignite armed separatism in Turkey's Kurdish provinces.

Today's court ruling also comes as an additional embarrassment for the AKP, which came to power last November amid promises to ease restrictive national legislation affecting the country's political life in order to boost Turkey's chances of joining the European Union. HADEP is the 24th party to be banned in Turkey in the last 40 years.

Although Ankara was granted candidate-member status in 1999, formal European Union entry talks have not yet started because of Brussels' continued concerns about human rights.

Greece, which currently chairs the EU rotating presidency, today described the decision to ban HADEP as an "especially negative development" that could affect Turkey's membership bid. Ankara hopes to enter the bloc in 2005.

Yesterday, Turkish leaders suffered another blow when the European Court of Human Rights condemned Ankara for failing to grant a fair trial to PKK leader Ocalan.

Ocalan was condemned to death in 1999, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when Turkey last year officially abolished the death penalty.

Although the European court ruling is not binding, it in theory obliges the Turkish judiciary to retry the Kurdish separatist leader. But Ankara has ruled out a retrial and said that it will appeal the decision.