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Kurdish MPs go on trial in Turkey: Six nationalist deputies face the death penalty, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul

BRAZENLY defying friends, allies and enemies who all think it is in the wrong, Turkey yesterday put six ethnic Kurdish leaders - five ex-members of parliament and a sitting MP - in court for non-violent political 'crimes' that carry the death penalty.

Several foreign human rights activists and legislators, including Plaid Cymru's Ceynog Dafis and two British lawyers, were on hand in Ankara to watch a trial that outsiders and ethnic Kurds see as an indictment of the Turkish judicial system.

'Who is judging whom?' asked a banner front-page headline in the Istanbul-based Kurdish nationalist daily, Ozgur Ulke (Free Country). It published a full-page 'counter-suit' in the name of 43 of the most prominent ethnic Kurdish politicians and activists murdered in the past three years.

The 'counter-suit' put the Kurdish nationalist case: suppression of ethnic identity for the 71 years of the republic, 1,500 villages emptied and mostly destroyed since 1984, denial of the right to Kurdish education, new allegations of holding camps and the bombings of seven buildings of the Kurdish nationalist Democracy Party so far this year.

The strident Kurdish complaints fall on deaf ears in the Turkish establishment and judicial system, which, to the frustration of would-be reformers, has lagged far behind in the modernisation of the rest of Turkey.

The state prosecutor is likely to spend until tomorrow reading out a 452-page indictment of the six Kurdish nationalists, who have been held in jail for nearly five months after being stripped of their parliamentary immunity; five of them were expelled from parliament. The prosecutor has called for the death penalty, although nobody has been executed in Turkey for 10 years.

The six - Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, Sirri Sakik, Selim Sadak, Ahmet Turk of the Democracy Party, and Mahmut Alinak, an independent MP - are accused of having made separatist statements and of having links with the banned Marxist insurgents, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Another six Democracy Party ex-parliamentarians have taken refuge from Turkish courts in Europe, from where they are leading an increasingly effective campaign against Turkey.

The Turkish side feels justified in seeing an umbilical link between the parliamentarians and the rebels, labelled terrorists by Britain and the United States. It says telephone taps show the Democracy Party taking orders from the Syrian-based rebel chief, Abdullah Ocalan.

One of the accused parliamentarians openly admits that his son is an insurgent, another voiced sympathy with a rebel bombing that killed five off-duty Turkish cadets, and the brother of a third is rebel commander 'Fingerless Zeki', thought to have ordered the massacre of more than 30 unarmed army prisoners, an event that helped torpedo last year's two-month-long ceasefire.

The ex-MPs are not themselves accused of any act of violence, but that makes no difference under the republican penal code or the restrictive 1982 constitution.

'The Turks have long been aware of urgent need to change their legislation to allow the non-violent expression of all political beliefs. This trial demonstrates this need once again,' said a spokesman for the British embassy.

Mounting outside pressure has brought vague promises of reforms from Turkey's Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, and the outgoing armed forces Chief of Staff, General Dogan Gures. But, in fact, considerable political backsliding has followed the death last year of the Turkish leader, Turgut Ozal, who unbanned the Kurdish language in 1991.

However, hypocrisy surrounding Turkey's Kurdish problem is not confined to the Turks. Most European countries and the United States have happily continued to sell Turkey arms and helicopters at the same time as criticising its human rights record.

(Photograph omitted)