ANKARA (Reuters)–Europe’s top human rights court declared the 1999 trial of Kurdish rebel Abdullah Ocalan unfair on Thursday–pressuring Turkey to defy nationalist anger and order a retrial in support of its EU ambitions.
Ankara signaled Ocalan could indeed be tried anew. But it moved quickly to assure Turks who revile him as a terrorist bent on dismembering their nation that he would not walk free.
"Whether this dossier is reopened or not–the matter (of Ocalan’s guilt) is a closed one for the nation’s conscience," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said during a trip to Hungary.
The verdict from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) raised fears of revived political tensions in Turkey at a delicate time as it tries to meet European Union standards on human rights before the start of EU entry talks in October.
Ocalan–sole inmate for the past six years of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara–evokes strong emotions among Turks who blame him for the deaths of more than 30,000 people during a separatist rebellion in the 1980s and 1990s.
The powerful military–facing a recent increase in clashes with Ocalan followers–called the ECHR ruling "political–not legal"–echoing a widespread nationalist sentiment here that Europe is deliberately engineering problems for Turkey.
As word of the Strasbourg court verdict came–television aired dramatic 1999 footage of Ocalan blindfolded on a plane after his capture in Kenya by Turkish commandoes–a scene which triggered euphoria and pride in Turkey at the time.
Hoping to avert nationalist anger over the new legal twist–Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said: "We must be as cold-blooded as possible…This is not the end of the world…Our people must not be concerned (about the possible outcome of a retrial)–they must trust the state and the judiciary."
The ECHR verdict must still be approved by the Council of Europe–the continent’s top human rights watchdog.
"This is a long process and we still have a great deal of time," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said during a trip to Kiev.
A panel of ECHR judges–reaching their verdict by 11 to 6–said in a statement that Ocalan had not had proper access to legal counsel or the facilities needed for his defense.
"The applicant was not tried by an independent and impartial tribunal," they said.
Ocalan was tried by a State Security Court–a body set up to deal with crimes against the state which has now been disbanded in line with EU-inspired reforms.
Dozens of Kurds cheered and chanted outside the ECHR under a banner declaring "Free Ocalan–Peace in Kurdistan".
In Turkey too–Kurdish reaction was favorable.
"I hope (this decision) will contribute to Turkey’s democratization," said Osman Baydemir–mayor of Diyarbakir–the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast region.
The European Commission–which will lead Turkey’s EU entry talks–welcomed the government’s calm response to the verdict.
"The European Commission expects that Turkey will respect this decision of the Court of Human Rights. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe so it is due to implement all the decisions of the court," said spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardi.
Asked whether it could have any influence on the start of the accession talks–he said the Commission would wait to see how the decision was implemented in practice.
Financial markets also shrugged off the verdict–suggesting that the government’s reaction had struck the right balance in placating nationalists and Brussels officials. The centre-right government must show continued skill to stop the issue hampering EU entry talks and the foreign investment that could follow.
Turkey’s powerful military denounced the court verdict.
"Nobody can expect an institution which gave thousands of martyrs (in the fight against separatism) to stay impartial (over this ruling)," said General Ilker Basbug–deputy head of the General Staff.
Liberal political analyst Dogu Ergil of Ankara University said he expected both Kurdish radicals and Turkish nationalists to try to exploit the ECHR verdict for their own ends.
"The feeling in Turkey of being under siege by hostile international forces will increase a little bit more," he said.
Ocalan was found guilty in June 1999 of "treason through separatism". An original death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after Turkey scrapped the death penalty in 2002–in line with EU requiremen’s.