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European Court To Hear Öcalan Appeal

The European Court of Human Rights this week takes up the fate of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Both Ankara and Öcalan's lawyers are appealing portions of an earlier court ruling that he did not get a fair trial.


Did Turkey violate the human rights of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan?

The European Court of Human Rights held in March 2003 that Turkey did not give Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan a fair trial in 1999 after his spectacular arrest in Kenya.

Öcalan's restricted access to his attorneys and other irregularities in the case, including the presence of a military judge, led the Strasbourg court to rule the case had been "unfair" and its order that the Turkish government to pay €100,000 of Öcalan's legal fees. Now, both sides are contesting the ruling by the court's lower chamber -- Turkey in an effort to clear its human rights record and Öcalan in an effort to get a re-trial.

Turkey which is currently negotiating a starting date for European Union talks to become a member of the European Union, was harshly criticized for its treatment of Öcalan, which many viewed as inhumane. The court's original ruling cast an uncomfortable spotlight on Turkey's spotty human rights record. With its strong EU aspirations, Ankara has undertaken a series of major democratic reforms of its justice system and now wants to wash its hands clean of the messy case and is seeking to a reversal of the previous ruling.

During its rehearing of the case, which begins on Wednesday, the court will have to answer some tough questions, including whether Öcalan's arrest, his kidnapping from Kenya to Turkey or his trial in a state security court was in harmony with European legal standards.

An international conspiracy?

A Turkish special commando trapped the 55-year-old leader of the militant Kurdish separatist organization PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party) in February 1999, arrested him and then flew him to Turkey. Öcalan had been stranded in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 1999 after an odyssey through several European countries following his expulsion from Syria, where he was living in exile. Öcalan's lawyers believe his arrest and kidnapping violated international legal conventions. They are now demanding the testimony of heads of government, ministers and intelligence agency officials from a number of EU countries and Turkey to buttress their case. They have also described their client's arrest as the result of an "international plot."

But on that point and that of his life in isolation, Öcalan faces an uphill battle with the judges. The ruling of the court of first instance discounted Öcalan's claims of a sweeping international conspiracy, and also held that the isolated conditions of his prison, where he is the sole inmate, on Imrali island near Istanbul did not violate any laws.

As part of the overtures Ankara is making to Brussels for possible future EU membership, it recently eliminated the military courts, banned capital punishment and consequently commuted Öcalan's sentence for high treason in accord with its constitutional amendments to life imprisonment.

PKK fight against Turkey

According to opinion polls, the majority of Turks hold Öcalan accountable for the PKK's failed bid to create an independent Kurdistan on Turkish soil between 1984 and 1999. PKK-led guerrilla fighting, which Öcalan orchestrated from neighboring Syria, led to the deaths of 40,000 people, including Kurds and Turkish soldiers. The skirmishes injured hundreds of thousands, and millions of Kurds and other minorities were displaced from settlement areas in regions of East and Southeast Anatolya were the heaviest fighting occurred. The international community strongly criticized Turkey at the time for its refusal to grant minority rights to the Kurds.

If the Strasbourg court decides in Öcalan's favor, Turkey could be forced to hold a new trial. But Öcalan's lawyers say it would be impossible for a fair trial to be held in Turkey and are instead demanding that the issue, which they say effects all people in Turkey, be taken up by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

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