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Arrested Kurdish MPs could be executed

TURKEY'S parliament stripped immunity from prosecution from two more Kurdish deputies and an outspoken Islamic fundamentalist yesterday, a warning to all that nationalist sentiment in Turkey is a rising, divisive and increasingly relentless force.

Western diplomats in Ankara said parliament's actions against eight of its members were a disgrace to Turkey's European ambitions, showing the rotten state of the Turkish legal system and a further backsliding in Turkey's human rights record.

Several Turkish commentators thought along similar lines. They warned that the government was only making the situation worse by brutally silencing dissident opinion, an extraordinary contrast to the open discussion of everything and anything on nightly television chat shows watched by far more people in Turkey than tune in to broadcasts from the Turkish parliament. 'Whatever their links to the PKK (Kurdish rebel guerrillas), the deputies were a legal partner for dialogue . . . what is this decision by the parliament but a call to arms?' wrote Cengiz Candar in the popular daily newspaper Sabah.

But the right-wing deputies in parliament had no time for such talk. They see the 17 deputies from the Democracy Party much as many Englishmen view Sinn Fein as a front for IRA terrorists. Although the deputies' alleged 'crimes' relate predominantly to what they have said rather than what they have done, they face trial on charges of separatism that could carry the death penalty.

'They just don't listen to us. They seem to want to execute us. If they think they will solve the Kurdish problem by hanging us, let them do it. But history will show us to be right,' said Sirri Sakik, one of the parliamentarians whose brother, 'Fingerless Zeki', is a notorious rebel field commander. The fiery Democracy Party leader Hatip Dicle and the Kurdish deputy Orhan Dogan have already been arrested, bundled into police cars waiting at the parliament gate as they emerged late on Wednesday night. Theoretically the arrests broke the law, since the two men are still parliamentarians and have the legal right to appeal to the constitutional court.

Such niceties were, however, swept away by a dangerous surge of nationalism that appears to be overtaking Turkey now that the war between Kurdish guerrillas and security forces in south-east Turkey is almost as murderous as any in the Balkans or the Caucasus.

The trend has been encouraged by the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, who branded the Kurdish deputies as 'traitors under the parliament roof'.

Mrs Ciller organised an anti- Kurdish, anti-Islamic rally in Istanbul's Taksim Square on Monday in honour of Kemal Ataturk, who used secularism and then Turkish nationalism as the key to rallying people around the republic he founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Istanbul did not seem very impressed. Only about 10,000 people partially filled the square, mostly police, schoolchildren and state workers specially bussed in for the occasion. But, whipped on by the secularist mainstream press, the exercise has now been repeated all over Turkey.

Faced with a collapse of the Turkish lira, a ballooning foreign debt and an economy teetering on the brink of recession, Mrs Ciller is doubtless hoping that some of the Turks' almost religious respect for Ataturk will rub off on her discredited government and help it do better in nationwide local elections on 27 March.