- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Turkey's foreign ministry plans to appeal Wednesday's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Turkey violated the European Human Rights Convention in failing to offer a fair and speedy trial to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

"Both the decision and the corollary were far from having strong foundations," Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in a statement. "It is perceived that the court had not reviewed the changes that were made in our jurisdiction system."

Ocalan was one of Turkey's most wanted fugitives for two decades, and his arrest three years ago triggered demonstrations by Kurds, Kurdish sympathizers and human-rights activists across Europe.

The seven-member panel, meeting in Strasbourg, France, did reject a series of alleged human rights violations against Ocalan, including his original death sentence, which was commuted to life in prison last October.

The court also awarded roughly $110,000 to Ocalan's lawyers in legal expenses.

Ocalan is serving a life sentence in an isolated island prison. The Turkish government blames him for the deaths of more than 30,000 people during a 16-year Kurdish insurgency.

In its written ruling, the European court judged Ocalan's death sentence did not violate the European Human Rights Convention, presumably because it had been commuted. Nor did Ocalan's spectacular arrest in Kenya in 1999 and his subsequent detention go against the convention.

The court threw out charges that the Turkish government violated the freedom of expression, religion and other rights of Ocalan, who heads the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party.

But it did rule Ocalan had been denied the right to legal assistance and an impartial tribunal and that he did not have a fair trial in 1999. It also found Turkey unnecessarily delayed the PKK leader's hearing in court. Ocalan was arrested in February 1999 then was tried and sentenced four months later.

Both sides have three months to appeal the decision. The European court's ruling is not binding, but developments in the case will be closely watched by EU leaders deciding whether to accept Turkey in the European Union. If Turkey's appeal fails, the pressure will mount for the country to organize a new trial.

Critics of Turkey and its EU candidacy say Ankara has made insufficient strides in addressing human rights abuses.

As PKK founder and chief, Ocalan launched the armed struggle among ethnic Kurds in 1984 to break away from Ankara and set up their own state. The Kurds, a mountainous people with their own varieties of language and culture, have lived for centuries in the region where Turkey, Syria and Iraq intersect but have never had their own state. But as the bloody clashes with Turkey's military wore on, Ocalan changed his rallying cry from independence to autonomy within Turkey.

In 1998 however he was forced out of Syria, where he had his base of operations since fleeing Turkey in 1980. After seeking political asylum in Russia, Italy and other countries without success he was captured in Kenya by Turkish special forces in 1999. A military judge in Turkey sentenced him to death. From his prison off the Turkish coast, Ocalan declared a cease-fire in rebel fighting, which has largely been respected by his followers.

The death sentence has been a fiercely contested issue in Turkey, which has not carried out an execution since 1984. Last summer, the Turkish government abolished executions as part of a series of measures to meet human rights standards of the European Union, which Ankara hopes to join.

In October, Ocalan's sentence was commuted to life in prison. Two Turkish trade unions have appealed that decision, however.

(Seva Ulman reported from Ankara and Elizabeth Bryant from Paris.)

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