European push for retrial of Kurdish leader roils Turkey

The European Court of Human Rights says that guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan did not get a fair trial.

Responding to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights last week that Turkey should retry jailed Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sounded a definitive note.

"Whether this case is reopened or not, the matter is a closed one for the nation's conscience," he said.

As head of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Mr. Ocalan has long been public enemy No. 1, characterized as a kind of Marxist-Leninist Osama Bin Laden. A bitter war between Turkey and Ocalan's PKK killed more than 30,000 people in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hostilities ended in 1999, when Ocalan was captured, tried, and condemned to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Ocalan rejects the charges, saying he is a political leader.

In an 11-6 ruling, the ECHR found that Ocalan's trial "was not tried by an independent and impartial tribunal" and had violated European conventions on human rights. Turkey's government and judiciary must now weigh the ECHR's call for a retrial.

For most Turks, Ocalan's guilt is an open-and-shut case. But observers here say that a new trial for the PKK leader, who still has the support of many Kurds, could reignite the Kurdish debate.

Meanwhile, many Turks see the ECHR decision as further proof that Europe is not listening to Turkey's concerns and is intent on breaking up the country by giving increasing rights to minorities.

Turkey's handling of a retrial could, these observers say, shape the drive to join the European Union (EU) and the still-volatile Kurdish issue. "Politically [the case] is not a closed chapter," says Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University. "A retrial will reopen the question of the Kurdish issue, but not in a positive way. The first reaction will be a nationalist upsurge and rejectionism."

After Ocalan's capture, the PKK retreated to northern Iraq. But the group, thought to have some 5,000 members, called off a cease-fire last year, claiming Turkey was not seeking "lasting peace." Recent months have seen clashes between Turkish troops and PKK guerillas.

Meanwhile, EU-driven reforms dealing with cultural and linguistic rights have helped bring a sense of greater freedom among Kurds, though some Kurdish leaders say tensions persist.

"We cannot say that everything is OK because of the EU reforms," says Reyhan Yalcindag, a Kurdish lawyer who is vice president of Turkey's non-governmental Human Rights Association. "The Kurdish question is still unresolved."

Ihsan Dagi, a political scientist at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, warns that a new Ocalan trial would fan both Turkish and Kurdish nationalism. "This could lead to instability and tension in Turkish politics," he says.

Turkey's government must now also manage the impact the retrial debate may have on EU-related reforms. Recent polls suggest that public support for EU membership has dropped to 63 percent from 75 percent a year ago.

Public response to the ruling has been relatively quiet. A demonstration in support of Ocalan in the largely Kurdish city of Diyarbakir attracted some 1,500 protesters.

The ECHR is not an EU body, but is connected to the Council of Europe, the continent's top human-rights watchdog. Still, the court draws its legitimacy from the European Convention on Human Rights, which Turkey has signed and to which all EU members must be party. Defying the court would have serious implications for Turkey's EU bid.

"As a member of the Council of Europe and because of [its EU] candidate-country status, it is evident Turkey will have to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights," EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said recently.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which has made joining the EU a top priority, finds itself caught between European demands and pressures at home.

In an interview with a Turkish newspaper, opposition leader Deniz Baykal rejected a retrial. Turkey's powerful military, which has been more vocal about its displeasure with some of the EU demands, also stepped into the fray.

"Nobody can expect an institution which gave thousands of martyrs to stay impartial," Ilker Basbug, deputy head of the general staff, recently told reporters.

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