European Court Questions Turkey About Ocalan

*Blair–OSCE urge fair trial–prison treatment

STRASBOURG–France–LONDON–PARIS–COPENHAGEN–ANKARA (Reuters)–The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on Tuesday asked Turkey to explain urgently how Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan had been arrested and whether he was being allowed legal representation. Meanwhile British Prime Minister Tony Blair–the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and former French first lady Danielle Mitterand all urged Turkey to exercise fairness in Ocalan’s trial.

Lawyers for Ocalan–seized in Kenya last week by Turkish special forces–had been barred from entering Turkey and complained to the court that Ocalan’s detention violated the European convention on human rights.

The court delayed an interim ruling on the complaint pending Turkey’s response to its query.

"In view of the gravity of the allegations–(the Chamber) decided to seek clarification from the Turkish authorities on a number of points concerning the circumstances of Mr. Ocalan’s arrest and detention," the court said in a statement.

"The Chamber would in particular ask the Turkish Government for a speedy response to a request for information on the question of Mr. Ocalan’s access to lawyers."

Ocalan was charged with treason on Tuesday–for which he could face the death penalty. Turkish lawyers were prevented from seeing him and one of them–Osman Baydemir–was quoted as saying written authority for the visit hat not reached officials at the port near the island prison where Ocalan is being held.

Ocalan’s Amsterdam-based lawyer Britta Boehler said Turkey would have to explain the level of legal access to Ocalan within three days and that answers to other questions relating to the manner of his arrest and detention must follow by March 8.

"We are very pleased the court is taking up the case. This is a first small step and I am sure Turkey will not be happy about having to answer some very uncomfortable questions," she said.

The human rights court is part of the Council of Europe–which monitors human rights and democracy in Europe and counts Turkey among its 40 member countries.

Some 500 Kurds from France and Germany gathered outside the Council to demand that its observers check Ocalan was being well treated–and said they would stay until their deman’s were met.

But Turkey turned down a planned visit by the chairman of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly–Lord Russell Russell-Johnston–who had wanted to discuss Ocalan.

"The Turkish government has informed me that–at the present stage–they were not in favor of my visit to Ankara," he said.

He said members of the assembly would nevertheless visit Turkey in the coming weeks to monitor how Ankara was respecting its commitmen’s resulting from Council of Europe membership.

The Council published a report with Ankara’s authorization sharply criticizing Turkey for denying political prisoners timely access to lawyers.

The report–based on a visit to Turkey in October 1997–condemned conditions of detention and said serious efforts should be undertaken to modernize police stations and hospitals.

It said Ankara had taken steps to reduce torture and other forms of prisoner abuse but had a long way to go to reach acceptable standards.

The widow of French President Francois Mitterrand has asked the leaders of the 15 European Union countries urgently to check on prison conditions where Ocalan is being held.

"What are you going to do? We expect a lot from you," Danielle Mitterrand–a known defender of the Kurdish cause–wrote in a letter published on Wednesday by the French daily Le Figaro.

"I do not need to tell you that Ocalan’s life depends primarily on your commitment to defend the rights of detainees to a fair trial."

Mitterrand said she had reports that Ocalan was being held in poor conditions.

"Therefore–sending European observers to Turkey is increasingly urgent," she wrote.

Turkey must live up to its human rights obligations and ensure that Ocalan gets a fair trial–the president of the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly said on Wednesday.

"As a member of the OSCE and other European institutions–Turkey has committed itself to upholding the highest human rights standards–including the European convention on human rights," Helle Degn of Denmark said.

Degn said the court proceedings should be as open and transparent as possible. Echoing a European Union call rebuffed by Turkey on Tuesday–she said international observers should be allowed to attend the trial.

Degn last year replaced Spaniard Javier Ruperez as president of the 54-nation OSCE’s parliamentary assembly for a one-year term.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair Wednesday called on Turkey to treat Ocalan properly following his arrest last week.

Answering a parliamentary question on the plight of the Kurds–Blair said Britain condemned "terrorism" in all its forms.

"However…Ocalan should receive a fair trial and his physical safety should be assured," he added.

Blair said Britain was trying to help Kurds in northern Iraq threatened with attacks by forces loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile in Ankara–Turkish President Suleyman Demirel urged national reconciliation following Ocalan’s capture–but tensions grew with Greece on Wednesday as Athens put border forces on higher alert.

"Turkey has reached a turning point," Demirel said. "We must bring our children down from the mountains–for they are our children–misled into terrorism–into committing murders."

"We must do this in a way that does not cause more hurt," he said–referring to the government’s call on Kurdish rebels to surrender on promises of a partial amnesty.

Demirel–talking to journalists aboard an aircraft on his way home from a state visit–criticized Greece for secretly harboring Ocalan on embassy premises in Nairobi for two weeks before his capture by Turkish special forces.

"Whoever supports the killers of innocent people has blood on his hands," he said. "I say they are not behaving like a civilized country. I say this is hostility."

Newspapers with good contacts to the security organs have carried extracts from what they describe as Ocalan’s confession. They cite him as saying Greece sheltered his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and supplied arms–including rockets–for its 14-year fight for Kurdish self-rule in which 29,000 have died.

A Turkish business group said on Wednesday it would cut trade ties with counterparts in Greece.

Greek government spokesman Dimitris Reppas said Greek forces on the Turkish frontier and islands close to Turkey had been put on higher alert because of declarations from Ankara. But he said he did not expect any incidents.

"We have taken measures of heightened alert in view of any such development–which at this time we do not foresee."

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