I buy my visa to enter Turkey from an immigration officer just inside the terminal building at Esenboga Airport in Ankara. I give him my passport and two grubby fivers, caked with the residue of London; he inspects them and then me with suspicion before stamping my passport, and I join the queue designated for non-Turkish nationals to pass immigration control. There are dozens of people in the queue chatting in Turkish but brandishing passports from Germany, Norway, Switzerland and elsewhere. Most, I guess, are Kurdish and I am reminded, yet again, that thousands of Kurds have made a home for themselves away from a notional Kurdistan, a region extending from south-east Turkey to northern Iraq. Many in this queue will have been born abroad, or will have established new lives in Munich, say, or London. Some will be refugees, taking a risk by returning briefly under new identities.

When I reach the head of the queue, my passport is looked at carefully before I’m allowed to pass. I’m relieved not to be asked the purpose of my visit: friends and colleagues who have conducted fact-finding missions in Turkey have been threatened and beaten up by police. One had a gun held to his head.

I have been appointed by a Geneva-based NGO, the International Commission of Jurists, to observe the June hearing of the trial of Leyla Zana and three other former Kurdish Parliamentarians charged with membership of the armed separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. My knowledge of the issues stems from having represented hundreds of Kurds claiming refugee status in the UK and from sifting through human rights reports. My purpose is to encourage Turkey’s compliance with the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which it has been a signatory since 1954.

When Leyla Zana was 14, she was pressured by her family into marrying her second cousin, Mehdi Zana, an activist who had recently spent three years in prison. In 1977, Mehdi was elected mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, but after the military coup in 1980, he was arrested again and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. Leyla and her two children visited her husband throughout the 1980s. ‘I met many different people while standing at the prison gates,’ she has said. ‘I began to change, to question my identity . . . Until then I had no interest in the fact that I was a Kurd. The ideal was to be a Turk.’ She founded and chaired a women’s group, which helped women who, among other things, were waiting for their husbands to be released from prison. Then in 1988, on a visit to the prison, she was denied access to her husband. She could hear inmates being beaten inside the prison and raised a protest. She was arrested and tortured: ‘That was about the time I decided to become a political activist.’

In 1991, she was elected to the Turkish Parliament, winning 84 per cent of the votes cast in Diyarbakir – she was the first Kurdish woman to become an MP. At her inauguration, she wore a headband decorated with the traditional Kurdish colours, yellow, green and red. When she took the oath of loyalty to Parliament, she spoke first in Turkish, as required by law, then added in Kurmanji, an illegal Kurdish dialect: ‘I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish people may live peacefully together in a democratic framework.’ MPs erupted with shouts of ‘separatist’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘arrest her.’ Parliamentary immunity saved her, for the time being.

Over the next three years, Zana openly criticised the Turkish Government’s treatment of the Kurdish people, speaking up both at home and abroad while public prosecutors in Turkey made applications to the State Security Court to remove her Parliamentary immunity. In April 1994, one of these applications was successful, and Zana, along with six other Kurdish Parliamentarians, was arrested and charged with treason, punishable by death. The Democracy Party, which she represented, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court two months later. At trial, the charge against Zana and the others was altered at the last minute to ‘membership of the PKK’. She was alleged to have been at a PKK camp in Syria (she was in Brussels at the time). A taped telephone conversation was said to reveal that she was in contact with Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, but no expert evidence was called to identify the voices. Her political speeches were also cited.

On 8 December 1994, Zana and the others were convicted, and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. She remains in detention today. ‘Our duty as legislators was to speak out,’ she wrote in the Washington Post, and ‘explore all paths to end this frightful war which has torn our country asunder.’ She referred to the previous two years when the Army had evacuated and destroyed 1390 Kurdish villages, and death squads had killed more than two thousand political and human rights activists as well as 34 journalists. None of these people had been involved in the fighting. More than a hundred journalists, academics and writers had been imprisoned. ‘Such is the price for challenging the official, military version of events,’ she said. ‘The West should realise Turkey is not just a locale for military bases and electronic eavesdropping. It’s a country of passions and conflicts, which can . . . spill over into the irrational.’

When the High Court dismissed their appeal in 1995, Zana and three others made applications to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Their application was finally heard in 2001, and the court ruled that the trial had violated Article 6, the right to a fair trial, in three respects: the State Security Court had not been an independent and impartial tribunal as there had been a military judge on the bench; the late alteration of the charge from treason to membership of an armed separatist group had not allowed the defendants sufficient time to prepare their case; and the defence had not been allowed to cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution. Damages of $25,000 were awarded to each of the applicants, payable by the Turkish Government. The money has yet to be paid.

Zana has attracted significant international support. In 1995 the European Parliament, which has repeatedly called for her release, awarded her the Sakharov Freedom Award. She has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In February this year, following the introduction of new legislation, the Turkish State Security Court acceded to the defendants’ application for a retrial. It has been heard at the rate of one day a month ever since.

Although this is a public hearing, I have some trouble gaining access to the court. The policemen guarding the entrance to the compound don’t seem to like the look of me, and despite the best efforts of my interpreter, it’s clear that I am being given the runaround. But I get lucky. Yusuf Alatas, the advocate representing Zana, has arrived at the same time as me: he whispers a few words in the appropriate ear, and I am allowed in. Alatas, I later learn, was sentenced to imprisonment in 1996 for exchanging words with security officers when trying to gain access to the building. He’s learned the hard way how to charm his way in.

During the last decade, a number of lawyers have been prosecuted merely for representing Kurdish suspects or activists. Most notoriously, in 1993, 25 lawyers who practised in Diyarbakir State Security Court were arrested, detained and prosecuted after they had represented alleged members of the PKK. The ‘Diyarbakir 25’ were charged with membership of and aiding and abetting the PKK. They claim to have been subjected to a variety of tortures during their detention, including continual blindfolding, beatings, death threats and mock executions. Some were stripped in freezing conditions and hosed with pressurised water. They were finally acquitted in 2001.

This year, the authorities have turned their attention to human rights activists. On 5 May, the day after members of the Human Rights Association attended the UN Committee against Torture, its headquarters in Ankara were raided by the Anti-Terror Branch under the pretext of a generic prosecution for ‘assisting an illegal organisation’. In another case, Dr Alp Ayan, a psychiatrist and member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, faces prosecution for insulting the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Justice by publishing a press release denouncing torture and inhuman detention conditions.

Ankara State Security Court is a vast, cuboid slab of concrete. Outside the courtroom are members of the public, friends and family of the defendants, a team from Amnesty International, MEPs from Italy and Germany and their entourage. I had been warned that the trial process was farcical. By the conclusion of last month’s hearing (‘one day a month’), the prosecution had called 23 witnesses, but the defence had been denied the right to call any. The presiding judge in the retrial had been present in February when the defence applied to the court for a rehearing: he had voted not to allow a retrial, saying that there was nothing about the European Court’s judgment that led him to conclude either that the trial was unfair, or that there was any possibility that Zana and the others were not guilty. Everyone believes the verdict is a foregone conclusion. As far as the defence is concerned, the only purpose of the trial is to accumulate arguments for the Appeal Court, and presumably for a further application at Strasbourg.

Above the dais where the three judges and the prosecutor are sitting is a bust of Ataturk, guardian of the nation state. His words, in old-fashioned Ottoman Turkish, are stencilled on the wall. The message is that pluralism will not be tolerated. From a side door, surrounded by seven members of the gendarmerie, Zana and her co-defendants are brought in. Zana sees someone she knows in the gallery, and waves, smiling, before turning to say something to one of the others. She has been in prison for nine years but she seems indestructible. The judges change their minds about hearing defence witnesses – only because the prosecutor has acquiesced – and a murmur of excitement is heard throughout the court. But it’s unlikely that this will do anything to halt the steady progression towards a guilty verdict.

In the afternoon, each of the defendants gives a prepared speech. The first two choose not to refer to the evidence. This is a political trial, so they prefer to speak at length about the historical oppression of the Kurds. One, a lawyer, makes detailed submissions rebutting the prosecution evidence. The judges make no effort to disguise their boredom. More excitement rumbles throughout the public gallery as Zana, the crowd’s favourite, rises to address the bench. It is hot, she tells the judges, and she can see that they are tired. She smiles as she assures the panel that she is worried about them and will not detain them any further: she has a lot to say, and will wait until the hearing a month later. The crowd is disappointed, but I can see that the judges are flattered – it seems they haven’t realised that she is mocking them. At the close of proceedings, the judge resists a bail application on the grounds that there is nothing invalid about the guilty verdict of 1994. I make a note for my official report that the presumption of innocence has yet again been violated.

At the hearing in August, the defence lawyers’ frustration peaks: they still can’t cross-examine witnesses directly, but have to put their questions through the judges; their legal submissions are not recorded verbatim for the court log but are summarised by the judges; evidence is similarly recorded in summary form only; in contrast, every word spoken by the prosecutor and the judges is recorded verbatim; there has been repeated reference by the judges to the guilt of the defendants; the prosecutor and judges confer in chambers when decisions are made, excluding the defence from their deliberations. The list goes on. They have the international community behind them, they say, and submit the ICJ reports from previous hearings, including mine. In sum, they accuse the prosecution and the judges of prejudging the issues, of pursuing the trial merely out of vanity and a sense of their own honour. The verdict, they say, is inevitable and they withdraw from active participation in the trial process.

What astonishes me is that this impassioned protest is directed at a new panel of judges. The ‘real’ judges who are trying this case are on holiday, but the trial proceeds anyway. This is not unusual, I am told, and I have to suppress a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

The European Parliament’s latest report on Turkey’s application for membership was published in May: it’s an extraordinary document in its icy analysis and bloodless phraseology. Each sentence begins without a subject as if some headless Eurocrat were its author: ‘notes with concern that torture practices still continue and that torturers often go unpunished’; ‘is deeply concerned about reports of women in detention being subjected to frequent sexual violence and rape committed by state security agents; notes that women of Kurdish origin and women holding political beliefs unacceptable to the authorities or the military are particularly at risk of such violence.’ There is a call for Zana’s release. The document also identifies the source of these problems: ‘notes that the Army maintains a central position in the Turkish state and society; notes with regret that the Army’s excessive role slows down Turkey’s development towards a democratic and pluralist system.’

In response, the Government – under the recently appointed Recep Tayyip Erdogan – passed a sixth package of ‘democratisation laws’, repealing the anti-terror legislation employed by the military to restrict freedom of thought and expression and decriminalising television and radio broadcasting in Kurdish. The package did not get very far, however. At the end of June, the President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed it, believing, so he said, that there was ‘still a strong possibility that the lifting of the anti-terror article would lead to major risks to the Turkish republic and the indivisible unity of the state’. On 16 July, Parliament fought back, passing the reforms for a further time: President Sezer has not, so far, challenged them in the Constitutional Court. This could be seen as a move in the right direction, but implementation of the reforms is resisted at the highest levels. The Turkish Human Rights Association is pessimistic. There are many other articles in the Turkish Criminal Code that could be invoked to harass intellectuals, human rights activists and lawyers. And a deep-seated distrust of Kurdish politics prevails. In March, HADEP, the successor to Zana’s DEP and the largest party with a Kurdish agenda, was banned. Its successor, DEHAP, now faces dissolution proceedings in the Constitutional Court. Turkey has until December 2004 to convince the EU that it is ready to start membership negotiations. Leyla Zana and her colleagues are due to be released in 2005.

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