A Turkish appeals court has ruled that four Kurdish former deputies accused of links with an outlawed Kurdish rebel group were not tried fairly and has ordered a new trial. The ruling was welcomed by EU diplomats in the Turkish capital.

Last month a Turkish court ordered the release of the four Kurdish lawmakers. They had been serving a 15-year jail sentence handed down in 1994 following their conviction on charges of acting as a political front for rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

The four denied any links with the group that was recently renamed Kongra-Gel.

Evidence brought against the four included speeches they made in the then-banned Kurdish language during an inaugural session of the parliament. Also presented were tape recordings of phone conversations they had with alleged PKK. members. None of the four was proven to have engaged in any form of violence.

EU governments long held up this case and Turkey's poor human rights record as one of the chief reasons for refusing to launch membership negotiations.

Turkey's reform oriented ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in November 2002, has made efforts to change Turkey's image by pushing legislative changes aimed at raising the country's uneven democracy to European standards.

In line with those changes, a Turkish appeals court ordered the retrial of the four Kurdish activists.

Lawyers for the four said the latest ruling paves the way for their exoneration. It is an important milestone for Turkey, defense lawyer Hamit Geylani said.