19 May 2005 Edition

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Turkey in the dock over Kurdish leader

The European Court of Human Rights last week ruled that Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan did not receive a fair trial in Turkey.

The Court in Strasbourg ruled on Wednesday 11 May that the leader of the Kurdish pro-independence movement Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) was "not tried by an independent and impartial tribunal" and that his rights had been violated by the long delay in bringing his case to court.

In February 1999, with the aid of Mossad, the Israeli secret services, the Turkish state kidnapped Ocalan from Kenya. He was paraded in chains before the world's media before being placed in solitary confinement on an island prison. They tortured him and put him through a farcical trial before sentencing him to death for his role in a 16-year guerrilla war against the Turkish state, in which more than 30,000 people died.

Ocalan is currently the sole inmate on the prison island of Imrali, after Turkish authorities were pressured into commuting the death sentence to life in prison, with no chance of parole. The decision was a formality in line with Turkey's abolition of the death penalty in August 2001 as part of reforms aimed at meeting criteria for European Union entry.

The initial aim of Ocalan's appeal to the Strasbourg court was to lift the death sentence, but when that was commuted in 2002, he continued with the case to contest the conditions of his arrest, trial and imprisonment. On other complaints lodged by Ocalan's lawyers, the court ruled in Turkey's favour. The seven judges rejected charges that Ocalan's conditions of detention were inhumane or that he had been illegally detained.

Although the Court ruling is non-binding, it puts pressure on Turkey to hold a retrial. Turkey's government has already announced that it is planning an appeal and the Turkish foreign ministry declared that the European Court of Human Rights had not "thoroughly considered" aspects of the case and that the judges' reasoning was therefore not "sound".

Ocalan was Turkey's most wanted man for two decades. He lived in exile from the early 1980s, mostly in Syria. In October 1998 he was expelled from Syria and from there went to Greece, Russia, Italy, then again Russia and Greece, before going to Kenya, where he was kidnapped.

The extraordinary response of Kurds worldwide to the arrest demonstrated the depth of despair of a people who have been degraded, humiliated and treated as an inferior race for decades. But the storming of embassies and the tragic self-immolation of a Kurdish teenager in London also showed the resolution and passion of a people who have been ignored for so long.

In June 1999, as he was sentenced, Ocalan called for peace and an end to armed struggle, but he said the Turkish state had to meet the PKK half way.

The leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has stirred up strong emotions in Turkey since 1984, when the organisation launched its armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state. In Turkish, the name Ocalan itself means "he who takes revenge". His supporters call him Apo, the Kurdish word for uncle.

Abdullah Ocalan came from a humble background; son of a poor peasant family in the south-eastern village of Omerli. He became involved in politics while studying political science at Ankara University, setting up the PKK with fellow students. He left Turkey before the military coup in September 1980 and has remained in exile since then.

But it was not until tens of thousands of PKK guerrillas took on the second largest army in NATO that he became internationally known.

In the years before his arrest, he had modified his approach, saying he would settle for autonomy instead of an independent state for Turkish Kurds. He also announced that he wanted to transform the PKK from a military to a political organisation. Turkey dismissed Ocalan's calls for a political dialogue as a tactic for avoiding the gallows, and said the guerrillas must surrender without preconditions.

After Ocalan's arrest, the PKK declared a ceasefire, following his call to his supporters to give up armed conflict. In its statement the organisation said: "The democratic political struggle has been adopted to be applied in all arenas as the basic form of struggle." The group said that it would push Kurdish rights "within the framework of peace and democratisation".

This statement was welcomed in Europe but ignored by the Turkish government, which dismisses the PKK as a terrorist band. In the past, all efforts on the part of the Kurds to bring about a political rather than a military resolution to the conflict have failed and the international community has shown little interest.

In April 2002, the PKK was dissolved and the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) was founded, an umbrella for a number of different pro-independence organisations. KADEK's main political goal is to support any force progressively challenging the status quo in any of the four countries where Kurds live: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

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