Turkey frees Kurd Nobel nominee in bid for EU entry

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The Independent Online

A nobel peace prize nominee, Leyla Zana, and three other Kurdish former MPs were freed from prison in Turkey yesterday. Their release is likely to bolster Turkey's bid to join the European Union, which viewed the four as political prisoners.

A nobel peace prize nominee, Leyla Zana, and three other Kurdish former MPs were freed from prison in Turkey yesterday. Their release is likely to bolster Turkey's bid to join the European Union, which viewed the four as political prisoners.

Hundreds of supporters sang, performed Kurdish folk dances, cheered and hurled bouquets of flowers at the four as they left Ulcunlar prison in Ankara after an appeals court ordered their release.

Ms Zana's lawyer Yusuf Alatas described the decision as "a victory for Turkish law" and "a real turning point". The Justice Minister, Cemil Cicek, said: "This was the last bargaining chip in the hands of those who were seeking excuses in Turkey's EU bid. The Turkish legal system has done its part; now it is the others' turn."

Eren Keskin, deputy head of Turkey's Human Rights Association, applauded the decision. "It is a positive step, a reason to rejoice," Ms Keskin said. "At the same time, it is an acceptance by the Turkish legal system of its own injustice." The release, after 10 years in prison, coincided with Turkey's first-ever Kurdish language broadcast on state television. The transmission of a 30-minute programme of news, sport, folk dancing and a nature documentary in the once-taboo language was a result of reforms passed in August 2002 as part of the campaign to join the EU.

For decades Turkey denied the very existence of its Kurdish minority, which today comprises an estimated 12 million of the nation's 70 million people. Courts banned public expressions of Kurdish identity after the Kurdish Workers Party launched an armed movement in 1984 for a separate Kurdish nation. Since then, conflicts have killed 37,000 people, mostly Kurds. Until 1991, speaking Kurdish was forbidden in Turkey.

Ms Zana, the first Kurdish woman to be elected to Turkey's parliament, upset authorities for being proudly Kurdish. At her inauguration in 1991 she took the oath of loyalty in Turkish, but added in Kurdish: "I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework."

During her three years in parliament Ms Zana spoke in Kurdish, campaigned for Kurdish rights and wore a headband with the traditional Kurdish colours of red, green and yellow. She was arrested in 1994 with the other Kurdish MPs, convicted of maintaining ties to Kurdish separatist guerrillas, and sentenced to 15 years.

The EU and international human rights groups considered Ms Zana, Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Dogan to be prisoners of conscience, believing the four did not receive a fair trial. But it was not until a ruling in 2001 by the European Court of Human Rights that they were given a retrial. At the retrial the convictions were upheld and they returned to jail.

But on Monday a higher court overturned the decision on technical grounds and reset a trial date of 8 July. The court ordered the four be released pending the retrial. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, said it was unlikely they would serve further time, even if they were found guilty in the retrial.

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