ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s appeals court ordered the release of former Nobel peace prize nominee Leyla Zana and three other Kurdish former lawmakers on Wednesday in a landmark decision certain to please the European Union it seeks to join. The ruling–freeing them pending appeal–coincided with historic first Kurdish-language broadcasts on state television–and the start of an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights on the fate of jailed Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan.
"Turkey’s 80-year ban on the Kurds is over today," Sirri Sakik–another former pro-Kurdish lawmaker–told Reuters outside Ankara’s Ulucanlar prison as supporters waited for the four to walk free. "It shows Turkey recognizes the Kurdish reality."
Turkish financial markets bounced on news the four would be freed–seeing it as highlighting improved human rights and promoting a drive for EU membership. Zana–campaigning for Kurdish rights–had taken on a great symbolic importance for supporters and those who saw her as threatening Turkish unity.
Turkey had denied the very existence of its Kurdish minority for decades–terming them "mountain Turks." Courts came down hard on public expressions of Kurdish identity–especially after the outbreak of armed separatism in 1984.
Kurds form an estimated 12 million of Turkey’s 70 million population.
The EU and international human rights groups consider Zana–Hatip Dicle–Selim Sadak–and Orhan Dogan prisoners of conscience. They were jailed in 1994 after being stripped of their parliamentary mandates and convicted of maintaining ties to Kurdish separatist guerrillas.
"Their verdict has not been overturned. But taking into account their long imprisonment–a decision was made for their release pending the end of the investigation," a court official told Reuters.
The 1994 conviction was upheld by a state security court in April after a retrial ordered by the European Court of Human Rights–which said Zana and the others were denied a fair trial.
April’s ruling brought sharp criticism from the EU. The Ankara government is working flat-out on political and human rights reforms and hoping to wind a firm start date for accession talks when EU leaders meet in December.
A state prosecutor called this week for the annulment of their sentences–and the court official said an appeal court would start hearing the case from July 8.
"This will make things easier for us politically–both domestically and abroad," Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said. "The Turkish justice system did what it needed to do."
Cicek told reporters the court had correctly interpreted recent legal reforms aimed at meeting EU criteria.
The government last month abolished the controversial state security courts under which the four were tried–and is working to set up new civilian structures to replace them.