Treason trial of Kurdish MPs stirs hatred

A TURKISH court yesterday refused to release six Kurdish nationalist parliamentarians who have been held in custody on political charges for six months, digging the country deeper into a show trial that is alienating Turkey's 12 million ethnic Kurds and the West.

Severe state prosecutors produced evidence from phone-taps to support claims that the defendants were in close contact with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK. The six are charged with treason.

'I am not being accused of a crime, but a potential crime. I'm being tried for my name, my Kurdish identity,' said Sirri Sakik during a recess. But many Turks are deeply suspicious. Mr Sakik's brother is 'Fingerless Zeki', the notorious PKK guerrilla leader.

Five of the six have been stripped of their parliamentary seats. Prosecutors are now demanding the death penalty for Mr Sakik, Ahmet Turk, Mahmut Alinak, Orhan Dogan, Hatip Dicle and Leyla Zana. It is unlikely that they will be executed, say police. The case is more likely to drag on damagingly for years.

'It's a political trial, so I suppose in the end politics will decide what happens,' said Mr Turk, who, despite his name, is a prominent Kurdish tribal landlord. 'If they are accusing our party of being part of the PKK, why isn't the whole party on trial, and not just us?' asked Mr Dogan, a lawyer.

Even speaking up for Kurdish rights can be a terrorist offence in the increasingly polarised, nationalist atmosphere of Turkey today. Ankara's Human Rights Foundation says at least 108 people are in jail, including the Kurdish parliamentarians, simply for voicing or printing their views.

The Turkish authorities take an ambivalent attitude to freedom of expression. On the one hand, a government minister visited two writers in prison last month to apologise. On the other, police detained artists and intellectuals last weekend after a small peace demonstration on a Bosporus quayside. 'Rule of law in Turkey is beginning to mean the rule of police, a quite different thing,' said one Western diplomat, noting that legislative reform was most unlikely in the short term because of a growing authoritarian streak in the government and the decay of the parliamentary system.

Voices of reason are becoming more isolated. 'Let's get rid of this paranoia about separatism and have confidence in ourselves. We must set our own house in order,' said the newspaper Sabah.

In a weak response, the Government last weekend sponsored a mixed commission of parliamentarians and the media to set some limit on free speech. But the first meeting ended up deciding only to delegate the matter to another committee. Turkey's allies in the West back Ankara's fight against PKK terrorism but insist that peaceful demands for ethnic rights are legitimate. Ankara feels that concessions will send it down the slippery slope of ethnic division as in former Yugoslavia.

'Inciting people to rebellion, causing conflicts among people, and provocation cannot be regarded as freedom of expression. Turkey should preserve its unity,' President Suleyman Demirel said in the speech that opened the parliamentary year. Members of parliament applauded.

Such intransigence suited the grim, huge, narrow-windowed judicial complex in the heart of Ankara where the Kurds' case is being heard. But police were clearly under orders to be sugar-sweet with everybody, even the much-hated foreign observers, about a dozen of whom were on view yesterday. The oddest element of the trial is its almost chatty informality, forcing the judge to warn the mainly Kurdish audience that it is a court not a coffee shop. Defendants are often free to take cigarette breaks in recesses or to mix with reporters, Turkish television cameramen, friends and scores of lawyers ready to defend them.

'We could be dead, like the 2,000 people killed in 'unsolved murders' (of Kurds by alleged death squads). But what sort of life is it, locked up like this, with no freedom to speak out,' said Ms Zana, one of those on trial. 'Still, at least people in Turkey are debating the Kurdish question now.'

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