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European Human Rights Court To Rule In Ocalan Death Penalty Case

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is to give its final verdict in the seminal test case, Abdullah Öcalan v. Turkey, tomorrow on 12 May 2005. The public hearing is to be followed by a press conference at the press room of the European parliament in Strasbourg at 11:00 a.m. at which the legal team will respond to media enquiries. [1]

On 9 June 2003, the applicant's representatives requested the case to be referred to the Grand Chamber pursuant to Article 43 of the Convention on the basis that it raises a number of serious questions affecting the interpretation of the Convention and a number of serious issues of general importance. Likewise, the Turkish Government submitted its request for a referral to the Grand Chamber on 12 June 2003.

In one of the most significant cases to be decided for many years, the Court held on 18 March 2003 that capital punishment has now come to be regarded "as an unacceptable form of punishment" which "can no longer be seen as having any legitimate place in a democratic society". It was held that the capital sentence imposed on Mr Ocalan must be considered, in itself, to amount to inhuman treatment. The Court also found that Mr Ocalan's rights under Article 6 (right to a fair trial) of the Convention had been violated in several respects. Finally the Court held that Mr Ocalan's rights under Article 5 (right to liberty and security) had been violated, stating that the length of his detention before being brought to a judge and the inability to challenge his detention at the domestic level violated both Article 5(3) and 5(4).

Abdullah Ocalan was abducted from Kenya in 1999 and sentenced to the death penalty. It was clear from the outset that if condemned by the European Court, Turkey would be forced to make a humiliating climb-down in the treatment of its longstanding opposition in order to accede to the EU. It is widely believed that this concern played a part in prompting Turkey to commute Mr Ocalan's death sentence to life imprisonment with no chance of parole or amnesty in 2002 but in the event the original imposition of the death penalty was still held to have violated Mr Ocalan's rights under Article 3 and the Court made its strongest statements yet in condemning recourse to the death penalty.

Mark Muller, Advocate Representing Abdullah Ocalan, states,

"This is one of the most significant cases to ever come before the European Court of Human Rights. This gives the Court an opportunity to once more uphold the universal applicability of basic fundamental freedoms including the right of all detainees to have a fair trial and not be subject to inhuman treatment irrespective of their ethnic or political status. We fully expect the Grand Chamber to confirm the Court's judgment that the trial was unfair and, if so, to compel the Turkish Government to implement fully the terms of the judgment and to hold a retrial.

"The case goes to the heart of a number of fundamental freedoms. Firstly, it will determine once and for all whether the death penalty is cruel and inhuman and has any place in 21st Century Europe. Secondly, it will set the standard for Governments who seek to avoid their human rights obligations by outsourcing their breach to allied non-member states. Thirdly, it will define the minimum norms and standards of fairness to be observed in sensitive political trials in the post 9/11 era.

"But for Mr. Ocalan and many Kurds, this case constitutes an opportunity to highlight the Turkish Government's discriminatory treatment of the Kurds. It also provides a chance to examine the murky circumstances surrounding his abduction in Nairobi and how both Turkey and the US allegedly drove him from the sanctuary of Europe to Nairobi to stop him using his asylum and Convention rights to resist extradition to Turkey. Above all, it represents a chance for a measure of justice for a forgotten people and perhaps also the platform for a future reconciliation between Kurds and Turks alike. "


[1] The Grand Chamber hearing will be open to members of the public at the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, at 9.30 a.m. The press conference featuring Mr Ocalan's lawyers, both from Turkey and the UK, will take place at 11.00 a.m. at the European Parlement Bureau de Strasbourg 1, Avenue du President, Robert Schuman, Press Room