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Imprisonment of Leading Turkish Activist Condemned

On the eve of the imprisonment of well-known human rights activist Akin Birdal, Human Rights Watch today condemned Mr. Birdal's one-year sentence as a violation of his right to free speech. Mr. Birdal is president of the prominent Human Rights Association (HRA) of Turkey.

"The right to free speech is routinely violated in Turkey," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Turkish governments since the 1980s have promised to lift restrictions on freedom of expression, but Mr. Birdal's experience shows how hollow those promises are."

Mr. Birdal was convicted and sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment by the Ankara State Security Court in July 1998 for a speech he made on September 1, 1996 calling for "peace and understanding"with respect to the Kurdish minority. Birdal was convicted for "inciting racial hatred" under article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code. The indictment specifically mentioned Birdal's reference in the speech to "the Kurdish people" as an incriminating phrase. The sentence was confirmed on appeal on October 27, 1998. As a result of the conviction, Birdal will no longer be able to act as president of the HRA and will no longer be permitted to be an official of any association. The ban is a lifetime ban, but may be appealed after five years. There are several other charges currently pending against Birdal, all related to his writings and public speeches. He will serve his sentence at the Ankara Central Closed Prison.

Ms. Cartner noted that although Turkey claims to be a democracy, Turkish citizens run the risk of prosecution, imprisonment, and sometime worse if they try to begin a peaceful public dialogue on a sensitive topic such as the rights of the Kurdish minority.

In addition to facing numerous criminal prosecutions, Birdal was physically attacked on May 12, 1998, when two gunmen entered his office in downtown Ankara and shot him seven times in the lungs and leg. The attack followed a reckless campaign in the press purportedly based on leaked information from the prosecutor's office about alleged connections between the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) and the Human Rights Association. These accusations were later shown to be false. Immediately after the attack, then-Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz repeated the accusations against the HRA, describing the attack as part of an internal feud within the PKK. However, the extreme right-wing organization Turkish Revenge Brigade took responsibility for the attack. Currently, a number of people, including a retired army major, are on trial for the attempted murder of Mr. Birdal.

In addition to Mr. Birdal, a number of others are already serving prison sentences for their statements or writings, including the former leader of the Socialist Labor Party Dogu Perincek, the former mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the lawyer Esber Yagmurderali. Others, such as the journalist Oral Calislar, are currently awaiting sentencing.

For more information see Human Rights Watch report Violations of Free Expression in Turkey, April 1999.

For Further Information:
In Turkey, Jonathan Sugden: 90-532-598-0771 (cell phone)
In New York, Holly Cartner: 1-212-216-1277
In Brussels, Jean-Paul Marthoz: 322-736-7838
In London, Urmi Shah: 44-171-713-1995

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