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Turkey Frees Kurd Activists in EU Membership Bid - 2004-06-09

A Turkish appeals court on Wednesday ordered the release of Turkey's most prominent female Kurdish politician and three fellow activists pending an appeal. The move is in line with Turkey's efforts to eventually join the European Union.

Hundreds of men and women chanting pro-Kurdish slogans and waving the Kurdish national banner gathered around Ankara's Ulucanlar prison as the four Kurdish politicians walked out after the court announced its decision.

Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Selim Sadak and Orhan Dogan, all members of the now banned pro-Kurdish Democracy Party, were jailed 10 years ago after being convicted of having ties to the outlawed Kurdish rebel group known as the PKK. In April, a Turkish court upheld their convictions after a lengthy trial ordered by the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the Kurds' had been denied a fair trial.

The European Union and international rights groups have long criticized Turkey over the imprisonment of the four Kurdish politicians, whose "crimes" included addressing the Turkish parliament in the Kurdish language.

The European Union's commissioner in charge of enlargement, Gunter Verheugen, hailed the Kurds' release as a sign that Turkey respected EU standards of democracy.

A lawyer for the four, Yusuf Alatas, described the court decision to free his clients as a victory for Turkish democracy and justice. Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the European Union had "no excuses" left for postponing membership talks with Turkey.

Turkey is hoping that EU leaders will finally agree to launch accession negotiations with the Ankara government during their last summit of the year in December. European diplomats told VOA they believe the release of the Kurdish politicians will likely influence European public opinion in favor of Turkey's membership of the union.

The court's decision came only hours after Turkish state run television for the first time broadcast a half-hour-long program in the long banned Kurdish language. Serafettin Elci, a prominent Kurdish politician, told VOA that such moves would go "a very long way" towards winning over the hearts and minds of Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds.