Turkey attacked as jailed Kurd loses case

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The Independent Online

Turkey's ambitions to join the European Union suffered a setback yesterday when a court in Ankara ruled that an internationally recognised Kurdish activist should stay in prison for political campaigning.

Turkey's ambitions to join the European Union suffered a setback yesterday when a court in Ankara ruled that an internationally recognised Kurdish activist should stay in prison for political campaigning.

The ruling that Leyla Zana, a winner of the Sakharov peace prize, and three other Kurds, should serve out their sentences provoked a fierce condemnation from the European Commission.

In an unusually tough statement, Jean-Christophe Filori, a Commission spokesman, described Zana as a political prisoner and said negotiations on EU membership cannot begin with countries that do not uphold basic freedoms.

The angry reaction from Brussels will alarm the Turkish government because the Commission will make a crucial recommendation on whether to start talks on Ankara's bid to join the EU before a decision is made by European heads of government in December. In a written statement the Commission says it "strongly deplores" the Ankara court's verdict and that "the case of Leyla Zana, who was sentenced for non-violent expression of opinion, gives rise to serious concern".

The four defendants have been in prison since 1994, convicted of belonging to the PKK a Kurdish paramilitary group, but their case was reopened last year after the European Court of Human Rights ruled the original trial was unfair. Zana has become a symbol for human rights activists since 1991, when she spoke in Kurdish during her oath of allegiance to parliament, sporting a hair band in the traditional Kurdish colours of yellow, green and red.

Despite reforms in Turkey, which has removed bans on Kurdish education and broadcasting, Zana and the three other former MPs, Orhan Dogan, Hatip Dicle and Selim Sadak, have remained behind bars. But with time off for good conduct, the four could be eligible for release next year.

Yesterday's decision to keep them in prison was taken by a state security court - the very existence of which remains an embarrassment to the Turkish government. These tribunals meet behind closed doors, deprive defendants of defence lawyers and do not work on the presumption of innocence.

The EU has been watching the year-long retrial as a test of improvements in human rights and the judiciary. Yesterday's ruling will only fuel the doubts which already exist in several states about the desirability of Turkish EU membership.

Amnesty International, which considers the four to be "prisoners of conscience", said it was a "missed opportunity to end the previous injustice" and called for their release. One Turkish official described the judgment as a "very unfortunate event". He said: "We all hope that the sentence will be changed," adding that although the government did not want such an outcome it could not interfere in the court procedures.

Turkey has been trying to match EU requirements, and has also played a positive role in the search for a solution to the Cyprus problem. It said yesterday's ruling was not final since there will be an appeal to a higher court. The government says it will have abolished the state security courts within two months. By the end of the year, when the decision on EU negotiations will be taken, the Turks may have resolved the issue.

The four - who deny the charges - have been boycotting the hearings and were not in court. Their lawyer, Yusuf Alatas, said they would appeal against the verdict. A new European legal challenge would also be mounted, he said.

One MEP, Luigi Vinci, said outside court: "It is a disgrace. This is an insult to the European Union, which is asking Turkey to be more democratic."

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