Turk Court Says Former Kurd MPs Must Stay in Jail

ANKARA (Reuters)–A Turkish court ruled against freeing four Kurdish former MPs from prison on Monday during a retrial of their case–which is being closely watched by the European Union.

Leyla Zana–a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 1996–is the best known of the four–who were handed 15-year prison sentences in 1994 for links to Kurdish rebels.

The defendants won an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights in 2001–which ruled that EU hopeful Turkey had denied them a fair trial. The court took issue with defense lawyers’ lack of access to witnesses–among other irregularities.

Turkey has recently approved EU-inspired reforms–including allowing cases to be retried if the European Court of Human Rights rules against Turkish verdicts.

A lawmaker from the European Parliament–who attended Monday’s hearing in Ankara–said the decision not to free the Kurdish MPs was regrettable.

"I heard no explanation of the reasoning for this,” said Emma Nicholson–a British Liberal Democrat politician.

"It is natural for the European Union to take an interest in this case since it touches on issues of human rights–freedom of expression–the judicial system….”

Brussels is impatient for progress on implementing political reforms if Turkey is to improve its chances of joining the affluent bloc. It is the only EU candidate not currently in entry talks–because of its poor human rights record.

Nicholson also criticized the use of a special security court for the retrial–saying such courts contravened the spirit of Turkey’s latest reforms aimed at winning it a date for opening EU accession talks in late 2004 or early 2005.

Zana and the others were jailed while a separatist conflict raged between Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels and Turkish security forces in the southeast of the country.

More than 30,000 people were killed in the violence in the 1980s and 1990s–most of them Kurds–but fighting has eased since the capture of PKK commander Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

Zana caused an uproar by taking her parliamentary oath in Kurdish. She and the others were stripped of their positions in parliament when charges they had ties with the PKK were brought.

The retrial will resume on October 17.

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