Turkey Deals Blow to EU Bid Convicts Jailed Kurdish Activists in Retrial

ANKARA (AFP)–A Turkish court convicted human rights award winner Leyla Zana and three other former Kurdish lawmakers in a retrial and ordered them to stay in jail–in a highly criticized verdict likely to hurt Turkey’s aspirations to become a member of the European Union.

The panel of three judges at the state security court here unanimously imposed a 15-year prison sentence on Zana–Hatip Dicle–Orhan Dogan and Selim Sadak–confirming their 1994 convictions for membership of an armed Kurdish rebel group.

Under Turkish law–the four former lawmakers–who have already been in jail for a decade–will be up for release in 2005.

Wednesday’s ruling was promptly denounced by the European Commission and European observers closely following the retrial which the European Court of Human Rights had ordered after finding the original 1994 proceedings unfair.

The verdict "gives rise to serious concern in the light of the (EU’s) political criteria and casts a negative shadow on the implementation of political reforms in Turkey," a spokesman for the commission said in Brussels.

In Ankara–Luigi Vinci–a member of the European Parliament–which awarded the 43-year-old Zana its Sakharov prize in 1995–described the verdict as "shameful" and said: "This verdict is an insult to the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights which had ordered a retrial."

German parliament speaker Wolfgan Thierse–on an official visit to Ankara–also warned that the verdict could present an obstacle to the mainly Muslim country’s efforts to integrate with Europe.

"It will be very difficult for Turkey to overcome the effect that this trial will have abroad," Thierse told Turkish officials–according to German diplomats.

The retrial of Zana and her co-defendants–seen by the European Union as a test of Ankara’s resolve to embrace European democratic norms ahead of a key December decision on whether to start membership talks–was also condemned by critics as flawed.

"The court referred to our defendants as ‘convicts’ from day one. That finished it all. We have been knowingly striving for nothing for the past 13 months," defense lawyer Yusuf Alatas told reporters.

Stuart Kerr of the International Commission of Jurists–a Geneva-based watchdog of compliance with international law–also accused the court of bias.

"Unfortunately–we have not been satisfied that there has been a fair trial. Of particular concern was the violation of the presumption of innocence," he said.

Alatas said they would appeal the verdict and go to the European Court of Human Rights again if need be.

"I have to say with regret that I believe this trial will also be condemned by the European Court of Human Rights and this will be a first in the world," he said.

The four defendants were not in the courtroom on Wednesday as they have been boycotting the proceedings in protest at the progress of the trial.

Zana entered the Turkish parliament in 1991–becoming the first Kurdish woman to do so–and caused an uproar during her swearing-in ceremony by speaking Kurdish in the general assembly.

In December 1994–the four were sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges of belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK led a 15-year bloody campaign for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. It declared a ceasefire in 1998–and since the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan the following year–it has vowed to pursue peaceful means for political change.

In 2001–the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the trial against Zana and the others had been unfair because they had been unable to have key witnesses questioned and had not been informed in time of changes to the charges against them.

They were allowed a retrial in March 2003 under democratic reforms Ankara adopted to bring itself in line with the EU.

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