STRASBOURG (Reuters)–The European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday ruled Turkey’s 1999 trial of Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan unfair–dealing Ankara a new blow as it battles crises over Iraq and its bid to join the EU.
The ruling in theory obliges Turkey to try Ocalan again–but it is not binding. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday it would appeal.
The court said the 1999 trial was unfair because a military judge was present for some of the hearings and because Ocalan–who was condemned to death but later had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment–had only restricted access to his lawyers.
"The Court held by six votes to one…that the applicant was not tried by an independent and impartial tribunal,” the court of seven judges–said. "(He) did not have a fair trial.”
Turkey–which blames Ocalan for 30,000 deaths in a 16-year campaign by his Kurdistan Workers’ Party for a Kurdish homeland in southeast Turkey–contested the decision. The Foreign Ministry said it would appeal to a higher chamber.
"The grounds for the decision and the results related to this are far from sound. We will appeal to the higher court the elemen’s that have been assessed as wrong,” the ministry said.
Separately–Justice Minister Cemil Cicek ruled out a retrial and said Ocalan’s appeal had been politically motivated.
"It doesn’t appear this person will have the opportunity for a retrial,” Cicek told reporters in Ankara.
"To me–the real reason the case was brought to the European Court of Human Rights is not because he didn’t have a fair trial – this person already admits to his crimes-but to move the issue from a legal platform to a political one–to use it as a political tool in front of European authorities,” Cicek said.
While the ECHR is independent from the European Union–Turkey is under pressure from the EU to improve its human rights record as it lobbies to join the bloc. Trial Violated Defense Rights
The court’s ruling has also fanned Turkish fears of Kurdish separatism–already revived by the crisis in neighboring Iraq.
Ankara–locked in tortuous negotiations with Washington over deploying US troops on its territory to invade Iraq–fears Iraqi Kurds could use the chaos of war to declare independence.
That could rekindle separatism among Kurds over the border in southeast Turkey–where fighting dropped off sharply after the capture of Ocalan–who ordered his followers to go to Iraq.
While Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq–who have controlled the region since the 1991 Gulf War–back any US-led war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein–Kurds in Turkey fear war could ravage the country’s poverty-stricken southeast.
Ocalan–who was captured in Kenya in February 1999–is in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali near Istanbul. He appealed the death sentence handed down by a Turkish court in 1999. The sentence was automatically reduced to life in prison in October 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty.
Ocalan also contested the conditions of his arrest–trial and imprisonment–calling his treatment "inhuman and degrading.”
The ECHR ruled against Ocalan on that issue–but concluded that Turkey had violated articles in the European Convention on Human Rights on the provision of adequate time and facilities for defense preparation and the right to legal aid.
Last October an arm of the Council of Europe-which could lend support to Turkey’s aim to join the European Union-urged Turkey to end Ocalan’s solitary confinement–saying he should have access to a television and telephone like other prisoners.
An EU candidate since 1999–Turkey has yet to be invited to open EU accession talks due to continued human rights concerns.
Despite reforms like abolishing the death penalty–Ankara’s EU bid was hurt again this week by the collapse of Cyprus peace talks. The EU now plans to admit a divided Cyprus in May 2004.
Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot statelet in northern Cyprus–where it has some 30,000 troops stationed since invading in 1974 in response to a pro-Greek coup in Nicosia.