- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

ISTANBUL — Turkey was girding itself for a political storm yesterday after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the country’s trial of a Kurdish separatist leader was neither “independent” nor “impartial.”

Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, was enemy No. 1 in Turkey long before he was captured and condemned to death for treason in 1999. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment three years later.

But judges yesterday ruled that the presence of a military prosecutor at the trial, plus the eight days that Ocalan spent alone in custody beforehand, were in breach of European conventions that Turkey has signed.

Desperate to inject new impetus into its flagging efforts to get an accession date from the European Union in October, Turkey has little choice but to call a retrial.

“The Turkish republic is a state based on the rule of law and will undertake the procedures required by the law,” said Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, a senior member of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

“Even if [Ocalan] were retried a hundred times, he would get the same sentence,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said earlier this week.

Such words are unlikely to reassure ordinary Turks, most of whom share the Turkish press’s view of Ocalan as a “baby killer.”

After a PKK war from 1984 to 1999 that cost 37,000 lives, the hatred runs deep: Several Kurdish politicians were put on trial last summer simply for calling Ocalan “Mr.”

To make matters worse, violence is rising again in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast after the PKK’s decision last summer to end the cease-fire that Ocalan called after his capture.

Three soldiers and more than 20 militants were killed late last month in a shootout near the mountain town of Siirt.

The European court’s decision comes as the Turkish government struggles to contain a wave of anger sparked in March when a group of youths attempted to desecrate the Turkish flag at Kurdish New Year celebrations in the southern city of Mersin.

Last month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused “elements in the West” of using the Kurdish issue “to divide Turkey.”

Last year, the European court ordered a retrial of imprisoned Kurdish politician Leyla Zana and her three colleagues, which resulted in their freedom.

But Turkey faces a problem that it didn’t have then. Although the constitution acknowledges the supremacy of international law, since 2003, the country’s law books have contained an article specifically aimed at blocking Ocalan’s retrial.

Change that — as it must — in the present climate, and the government risks coming across as caving in to the European Union. As Deniz Baykal, nationalist leader of Turkey’s parliamentary opposition made clear, it’s an opportunity that enemies of the government are not going to miss.

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