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EU Leader Criticizes Turkey's Detention of Kurdish Politician - 2004-01-16

European Commission President Romano Prodi expressed regret Friday over a Turkish Court's refusal to free imprisoned Kurdish politician Leyla Zana who has been invited to Brussels to receive a European Parliament Freedom of Thought prize. Mr. Prodi made his comments on the last day of a landmark visit to Turkey.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, the European Commission President said he had expected an Ankara court to release Mrs. Zana and three other Kurdish politicians who have been serving 15-year-long sentences after being convicted in 1994 on charges of acting on behalf of the outlawed Kurdish rebel group known as the PKK. Mr. Prodi said he was saddened by the court's refusal to free the politicians after a hearing in Ankara Friday.

The Kurdish politicians are being retried after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2001 that the lawmakers did not get a fair trial. They could be freed as early as 2005, if given time off for good conduct.

The trial is widely seen as a test of Turkey's commitment to democratization, as it seeks entry into the European Union. Mr. Prodi said that Turkey had made great progress in adopting a set of wide ranging democratic reforms over the past year. He noted however that legislative changes are needed if Turkey Is to become eligible to launch membership talks with the EU.

Another issue that will determine whether or not Turkey can become the first predominantly Muslim nation to join the European Union is the island of Cyprus. The island has remained partitioned between the Greek south and the Turkish north ever since 1974.

That is when Turkish troops invaded the north of the island in response to a coup mounted by Greek Cypriot nationalists seeking union with Greece. EU leaders say Turkey needs to use its influence over the Turkish Cypriots to relaunch United Nations sponsored peace talks to re-unify the island.

Mr. Prodi noted during a speech to the Turkish parliament Thursday that while the Cyprus issue was not officially part of the EU criteria for membership, it had become a "political reality" in terms of Turkey's aspirations to become part of the European grouping.

Mr. Prodi said an agreement on Cyprus could lead EU leaders to agree to start membership negotiations with the Ankara government at their last summit of the year in December.