What chance is there of a fair trial for Ocalan in Turkey?
The lawyers defending him have been attacked, intimidated and threatened with death
Friday 28 May 1999
Ocalan's lawyers are crying foul, arguing that the restrictions that will confront their client in court this Monday will violate his defence rights. Yet whatever the conditions inside the courtroom when Turkey's trial of the century finally opens, the rights of Ocalan and his lawyers have already been violated to such an extent that a fair trial will almost certainly be impossible - even if Turkey attempts a last-minute sleight of hand by adjourning the trial almost immediately to give a new coalition government time to introduce a bill abolishing the universally criticised State Security Courts.
If the Ocalan trial is a litmus test of Turkey's present suitability to join the European Union, membership is as far off as ever. For the three-and-a-half months since Ocalan's capture have highlighted, in often dramatic fashion, the collapse of the rule of law in Turkey and the unabashed legitimacy still accorded to violence both popularly and officially.
The lawyers defending Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have not been permitted a single private meeting with their client since their first visit to Imrali island on 25 February. Their time with Ocalan has been limited to a wholly inadequate two hours a week - always within sight and hearing of security officials, always without case files. They have been intimidated, attacked and threatened with death - sometimes by the security forces themselves, sometimes while under their supposed protection. On one occasion they were attacked inside a courtroom. Five needed hospital treatment for injuries that included "extensive tissue trauma... subcutaneous bleeding... and skin laceration".
On his first visit to Imrali island, the chief defence lawyer Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu, now off the case after months of unrelenting intimidation, was ordered to remove his shoes and socks. When he protested that no other visitors to the island were subjected to such humiliating treatment, Okcuoglu, a long-time critic of the PKK's own violence, was told: "Keep quiet, or we will make you take off all your clothes. And then you know what we can do to you!" Abolition of the semi-military State Security Courts - a measure on which Turkey's prospective coalition partners have reportedly agreed and which, cynics will note, will remove one ground for appeal to the European Court of Human Rights once the trial is over - will undoubtedly improve the quality of Turkish justice. But this alone will not guarantee Ocalan a fair trial (even excluding concerns about the conduct of the pre-trial process). In its most recent report on Turkey, "The Duty to Supervise, Investigate and Prosecute", Amnesty International points out that State Security Courts are just part of the problem; that only a more thorough reform of the judicial system can restore genuine independence to the judiciary.
The capture of Ocalan, leader of a 15-year rebellion that has claimed some 30,000 lives, presented Turkey with a golden opportunity to reconcile itself with its Kurdish population, 13 or 14 million people, almost a quarter of the country's population, who are denied basic political, cultural and linguistic rights. For more than 75 years the Kurdish south- east of the country has been oppressed and wilfully neglected. It has a per capita income less than half the national average and a literacy of 46 per cent, against a national 78 per cent. Children who speak only Kurdish may not utter a word of this language at school. In the name of the fight against the PKK, Turkey has been responsible for extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and destruction of villages.
Rather than weaken Kurdish resolve, the capture of Ocalan appears to have created a new unity among supporters and critics of the PKK. Yet everything indicates that Turkey believes it has won a great battle and will now push for a final victory. Thus it was that on 26 February, barely two weeks after Ocalan's arrest, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Mass Party of the former minister Serafettin Elci was banned for the sole "crime" of calling for a political solution for the Kurdish question. Hadep, the main pro-Kurdish party, accused by the state of having a hotline to the PKK, saw its leaders, scores of candidates and thousands of supporters arrested during the campaign for April's general and municipal elections. But despite this harassment - ignored by Turkey's Nato allies as Ankara contributed a squadron of F-16s to the war in Kosovo - Hadep won a stunning 62 per cent of the vote in Diyabakir, capital of the south-east, and captured a clutch of city halls. Now a senior state prosecutor says he will seek to have the Hadep mayors removed from office to prevent "a terrorist takeover".
Predictably, the strong-arm tactics of this critical post-Ocalan period are not confined to the political sphere. On 26 April, the Interior Ministry issued an order banning the phrase "people of Kurdish origin" - the only safe way of saying "Kurd" for most of the Nineties. Now journalists must write about "our citizens who are called Kurdish by separatist circles". There are no longer any "evacuated villages", only "abandoned villages"; no "calls for peace", only "interruption of terrorist activities". No "separatist camps", only "terrorist bases". So it's official: there are no Kurds, and no oppression of them. Only terrorists.
While these policies may be attractive to the two nationalist parties that triumphed in the elections - the acting Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party and the far-right Nationalist Action Party whose associated paramilitary groups killed thousands of leftists and Kurdish nationalists in the late Seventies - they are a recipe for disaster in a country whose Kurdish population is no longer confined to the south- east. Scattered all across Turkey as a result of Turkey's own scorched- earth tactics, often unassimilated in wretched shanty towns, a generation of young Kurds has grown up seeing their parents killed, displaced and, like Ocalan on the plane from Kenya, humiliated. Sooner or later, in one way or another, they will wreak their vengeance not only on a state that denies their right to exist, but also on those who tolerate, and arm, behaviour in Turkey on which they have declared war in Kosovo.
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