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Kurdish rebel didn't get fair trial, European rights court rules

ANKARA, Turkey—Europe's most influential human rights court ruled Wednesday that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan did not get a fair trial in a Turkish court in 1999.

The decision could indirectly affect the impending war in Iraq. It could embolden Kurdish separatists in Turkey and northern Iraq, to the dismay of the Turkish government. At the same time, displeasure with the European court, combined with fear of Kurdish separatism, could encourage Turkey to allow U.S. ground forces to invade northern Iraq from Turkey.

After naming a Cabinet on Thursday, the new government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to call for a new parliamentary vote on welcoming American troops. The parliament rejected such a measure March 1.

The European Court of Human Rights found that Ocalan was denied access to his lawyers and that he wasn't tried quickly enough. He also shouldn't have been tried by a military judge, the court said.

Turkey said it would appeal the decision.

"Our conscience is clear," Judge Turgut Okyay, who presided over Ocalan's trial, told the state-run Anatolian news agency. "The European Court of Human Rights has once again shown how it uses double standards against Turkey."

The court rejected some of the complaints that Ocalan's lawyers filed. It said his prison conditions weren't inhumane and that he wasn't illegally detained.

Turkey accuses Ocalan of leading a 15-year rebellion against the country in which thousands of Turks have died. Turkish commandos captured Ocalan in Kenya in 1999 and extradited him to Turkey, where he was convicted. He's serving a life sentence at a prison on the island of Imrali, off Turkey's coast. He's the only inmate.

After his capture, his rebel group—the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK—announced a cease-fire. But Wednesday's ruling could embolden the rebels at a time when U.S. troops could be in the region.

"The PKK will feel justified and legitimized," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They will feel a victory."

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the PKK stepped up its war for an independent Kurdish state. Today, it's largely silent, but several thousand guerrillas are still believed to be in northern Iraq.

The Ocalan decision could convince Erdogan to push through an approval for a U.S. troop deployment, said Ali Carkoglu, a well-known political analyst with the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

Hatred for Ocalan crosses political lines here, and it was the latest sign of a growing rift between Turkey and Western Europe, he said.

Senior European Union officials have criticized Turkey for the failure of talks this week to unite Cyprus, long split between Turks and Greek Cypriots. The EU's Enlargement Commissioner, Guenther Verheugen, said Wednesday that this could hurt Turkey's bid to join the EU, a key goal of Erdogan. The EU last year rejected Turkey's application to join, which the United States supported.

"One decision after another, Turkey doesn't seem to find any backing from Europe," Carkoglu said. "This is going to help push Erdogan towards the American perspective even more."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.