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31 May 1999

Our ally tramples on human rights

Britain supplies arms; America praises "a unique contribution to peace". Yet Turkey continues its sh

By Julie Flint

Ankara’s decision to deploy a squadron of F-16s in the war over Kosovo and to accept more than 25,000 refugees has been richly rewarded. Turkey is now “an indispensable country in its region”, the US ambassador, Mark Parris, said this month. “A country that can make, and is making daily, a unique contribution to the peace, stability and prosperity of a region extending from Europe to Central Asia to the Middle East.”

Lavish praise indeed for a country found guilty by the European Court of Human Rights of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and village destruction – some of the abuses being punished in Kosovo – and now accused of new breaches of international law in its treatment of the captured Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Only a week before Parris’s eulogy, lawyers defending Ocalan were physically attacked inside a state security court similar to the one where Ocalan will go on trial on Imrali island on 31 May. Five needed hospital treatment for “skin laceration . . . tissue trauma . . . and extensive subcutaneous bleeding”. It was the last straw for the head of the defence team, Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu, who resigned in protest.

Turkey stands at a crossroads. With Ocalan captured and his Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) weakened, the state has a choice. It can either address Kurdish demands for political and cultural expression or persist in the unabashed militarism that has crushed democratic rights, displaced millions of Kurds and devastated the economic base of south-east Turkey, in the conviction that “the indivisible unity of the state comes first and the law is subordinate to this requirement” – a widely held view that has given the security forces carte blanche to violate human rights on a scale that dwarfs the PKK’s own dismal record.

The resignation of Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu, a long-time critic of the PKK’s methods, speaks for all those who believe the state has made the wrong choice. Even excluding concerns over the nature of state security courts, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled are neither independent nor impartial, the pre-trial process has been a travesty of justice. Ocalan was initially denied access to lawyers for ten days. He has been held in solitary confinement ever since, and for three months was refused radio, television and books. His lawyers fear that he is being given addictive drugs against his will: they say he appears drugged in his meetings with them and is visited three times a day by a team of doctors including a specialist in drug addiction. Their suspicions have been deepened by published reports that Ocalan has a heroin problem, despite having been given a clean bill of health before his flight to Kenya.

Ocalan’s access to his lawyers has been severely restricted. The first meeting on 25 February was limited to 20 minutes, with two masked soldiers listening to every word exchanged. Since then, the lawyers have been allowed hour-long meetings – but only twice a week and still within the hearing of a security official, making it difficult to discuss issues of evidence or guilt. They must pass through five checkpoints before Imrali island, submit to five searches on the island and then work without case files, pens or paper.

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Concerned by international indifference to these abuses, the European Criminal Bar Association has approved a motion condemning “the failure of the Turkish government to afford Abdullah Ocalan proper facilities for the preparation of his defence”.

“This is not an examination of the Kurdish issue, a debate about terrorist or freedom fighter,” says Mark Muller, vice-chairman of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. “Turkey is a signatory to the European Convention and should be obliged to adhere to fair trial provisions.”

Ocalan’s lawyers have faced relentless intimidation – from their first visit to Imrali island on 25 February, when police escorting them watched as they were attacked outside the offices of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), to an appearance in court in Ankara on 30 April, when they were assaulted three times, both inside the court and then outside. The lawyers claim they were hit by police from the rapid deployment force while being driven away from the court and told: “Sing marches or we will kill you!” (Mehmet Eren, a Kurdish journalist tortured for nine days in November, according to Reporters sans Frontieres, was ordered to sing the Turkish national anthem after being punched in the face, stomach and testicles. He was also threatened with rape and forced to listen to recordings of torture victims screaming.)

Ocalan’s lawyers were eventually dropped off in a crowded market-place where they allege that the police incited bystanders to fresh violence with shouts of: “These are Ocalan’s lawyers!”

Since assuming the defence of the PKK leader, three of the lawyers have been sentenced to jail terms. One of them, Medini Ayhan, is already behind bars, having been imprisoned for seven months on 10 March after a long-standing case was brought to a sudden conclusion. The Istanbul Bar Association, which has long had an unwritten rule that members convicted of thought crimes are not disbarred, is coming under heavy pressure to make an exception for Okcuoglu – a lifelong liberal whose political views are at the opposite end of the spectrum from those of Ocalan.

The battle against the PKK has always been Turkey’s excuse for setting aside human rights. Ocalan’s arrest aroused brief hopes of goodwill gestures to end a conflict that has taken more than 30,000 lives and has been waged on both sides with total disregard for moral norms and international law. One body, the Foundation for Conflict Resolution, even urged the government to woo Kurds away from armed struggle by releasing Kurdish politicians suspected of having ties to the PKK. The opposite happened: the pro-Kurdish HADEP party estimates that 116 party officials were detained in the course of Turkey’s six-month election campaign and more than 5,000 party members were held for at least a week.

A candidate for office in Istanbul, Veli Haydar Gulec, was arrested no fewer than six times – for six days on each occasion. No charges were brought against him. On election day, in the absence of any serious international effort to monitor the polls, security forces and pro-government militias threatened and coerced voters in villages all over south-east Turkey and routinely violated voting secrecy. In one village near the town of Batman, Kurds were told they would be prevented from selling their tobacco crop if they returned a HADEP candidate. Others were warned their villages would be burnt.

Nothing of this appeared in the press. “I can write,” a journalist who was approached by HADEP to reveal this dirty tricks campaign told me. “But the paper won’t print.”

Hopes of a negotiated settlement to the Kurdish war took a new blow with the electoral triumph of two nationalist parties opposed to negotiations: the Democratic Left Party of Bulent Ecevit, the prime minister, which gained 136 seats, and the Nationalist Action Party. After failing to win a single seat in the previous elections, the MHP, which has in the past had links to right-wing terrorist organisations, is now Turkey’s second-strongest party, with 129 deputies.

Without a change of direction in Turkey, and with the MHP pressing for the death penalty if Ocalan is convicted, many fear that violence will get out of hand – fuelled by a lucrative arms market in an “indispensable” Nato ally.

The British government’s long-awaited Strategic Exports Controls Annual Report, published on the very day that Nato unleashed its bombers, made clear that Britain is no less indispensable to Turkey than Turkey is to Nato – this, despite a 1997 European Union Code of Conduct, introduced by Britain, which opposes arms sales to countries in conflict. In the first seven months of the Labour government, licences were issued for the export to Turkey of 43 military items, including helicopter spares, missiles and missile components, shotguns, silencers, ammunition, rifles and sniper rifles. In addition, Heckler and Koch, a subsidiary of British Aerospace, has expanded an agreement for the licensed production of assault rifles for the Turkish army to 500,000, from an initial 100,000.

It was the predecessor of Heckler and Koch’s HK33 with which Ismail Gunes, a 25-year-old Kurdish conscript, is alleged to have committed suicide in northern Cyprus on 28 March. The army claims that Gunes shot himself in the back of the head. Not once, but twice. And, oddly for a left-hander, behind his right ear. His family don’t believe it. They say they spoke to him on the eve of his death, and he was fine. They want an investigation but know they won’t get it.

While Turkey continues to celebrate the arrest of “the killer Ocalan”, many in the country fear for the future. Ten times as numerous as ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Kurds see nationalism coming under fire in Iraq and Kosovo but being tolerated, and armed, in Turkey. If Ocalan is executed, many believe the most we can hope for is that the reaction will be contained within Turkey’s own borders.

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