Justice In The Dock

Officially, Leyla Zana was the one on trial in Ankara's State Security Court No. 1 late last month. The former M.P., a Kurd, was imprisoned in 1994 for alleged "membership in an illegal terrorist organization." Her case is now being retried after the European Court of Human Rights found her original conviction to be "grievously flawed." So in many ways the real defendant isn't Zana; it's the Turkish justice system.

The stakes for Turkey in this unofficial proceeding are huge. For the real jury is not the state-appointed judges who will decide Zana's fate. It's the gallery of Western diplomats, members of the European Parliament, human-rights advocates and the media who gather for each hearing to witness the proceedings. Their charge: that despite much-vaunted reforms passed by Parliament this summer guaranteeing free speech and other basic rights, Turkey isn't serious about modernizing the ultraconservative (and sometimes corrupt) judiciary that must enforce those new laws. And that, the critics say, makes them meaningless--a conclusion that could well derail Ankara's quest to join the European Union.

Turkey's ruling AK Party came to power last year promising to do everything it could to get the country into Europe. It scrapped the death penalty, lifted bans on broadcasting in Kurdish and other non-Turkish languages, wrote new laws protecting minorities and threw out a slew of repressive human-rights laws that, in the past, had been used to imprison political offenders on flimsy evidence, including Kurds, nationalists and leftists. Much to the amazement of many in Brussels, AK pushed through these changes against fierce opposition from the country's military and conservative political leaders, opening on paper at least one of the most revolutionary chapters in modern Turkey's history. But that's the problem. The reforms are still largely on paper. Turkey's judiciary has been slow to put the new laws into action. Prosecutors continue to arraign suspects for crimes that should no longer exist. And the police, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, continue to regularly torture suspects and deny them basic rights.

As the European Union prepares to give Turkey a start date for accession negotiations, it is keeping a wary eye on the trial of Leyla Zana. In 1991 she became the first Kurdish woman ever elected to Turkey's Parliament--and quickly sparked outrage while taking her oath of office for calling on Kurds and Turks to work together to "build democracy" in Kurdish, the language of a fifth of Turkey's population. Soon after, the party she represented, the pro-Kurdish People's Labor Party, was outlawed on the ground that it promoted "ethnic separatism." Zana and three other M.P.s were accused of colluding with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which was then waging a bloody guerrilla war against the Turkish military; they were convicted and jailed for 15 years.

The main evidence against Zana came from a former guard at a PKK training camp in Lebanon, who claimed in a written statement that he had seen her there in October 1991. That witness, Ecdet Pacal, never appeared in court at the original trial. Nor is he due to appear at Zana's new trial--which hinders the defense strategy of knocking down the flawed (and possibly fabricated) prosecution evidence criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. "There will not be a fair trial," says her lawyer, Yusuf Alatas, who has lodged another complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that his client and her three colleagues should not be kept in prison during their retrial.

Such rough justice is hardly uncommon. In July prosecutors in the eastern province of Kars issued a warrant for the arrest of Gurbuz Capan, mayor of the small town of Esenyurt, near Istanbul. The charge: insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Capan's crime, apparently, was to remark during a TV interview that the man still almost universally known as the "Great Leader" was "busy chasing girls." The offense carries a penalty of three years in prison. A former lawmaker, Aydin Menderes, faced similar charges last summer for allegedly saying "Damn Ataturk" at a political meeting--half a decade ago, in 1994. Ayse Handan Ipekci, a Turkish filmmaker, was put on trial in April for "denigrating the security forces" in a mildly satirical film lampooning some policemen, and that same month an editor and a columnist from the English-language Turkish Daily News were given suspended sentences of 20 months for "insulting the judiciary" after raising similar concerns to those reported in this NEWSWEEK article.

Even reporting those mistakes the judiciary admits can be dangerous. When the daily Hurriyet reported late last year that Ankara's chief prosecutor, Nuh Mete Yuksel, had been fired for what a panel of judges described as "undisciplined behavior," the State Security Court ordered the issue seized and pulped--and banned any further reporting of the Yuksel case. European courts regularly refuse to extradite suspects to Turkey because of doubts they will get a fair trial. Even more embarrassingly, European immigration authorities often accept asylum claims by Turkish Kurds who say they have been beaten and tortured by Turkish police and fear they will be targeted if they return. Those within the EU who favor Turkey's candidacy are aghast at the judiciary's continued defiance of fundamental European legal norms. Examples, according to Dutch lawyer and human-rights activist Gert Wilde, include trial by jury, basic rights of free speech and association and the exclusion of legal testimony or confessions made under duress. "If Turkey's judges are trying to sabotage their country's EU chances, they're doing a very good job," says one European diplomat in Istanbul.

The timing of the EU's next stage of expansion makes all this especially sensitive. Ankara stands a decent chance of being given a date to start membership negotiations as soon as 2005. Once that happens, it's only a matter of time before Turkey is accepted into the Union. But if Turkey fails to dramatically clean up its justice system (and if no solution is found to the Cyprus problem by the time the divided island joins the EU next year), Brussels will hold off. That, many in Ankara fear, will cause bitter disappointment inside Turkey and lead to a loss of reformist momentum. It will also give those within the EU who are skeptical of Turkey's accession an opportunity to push for a "special relationship" short of full membership. The 11 months between now and the next EU progress report will be critical in deciding Turkey's future in Europe. Time for Turkey's judges to realize that they--and Leyla Zana--hold their country's fate in their hands.