Turkish court frees activists accused of Kurdish ties

ISTANBUL Fri Jul 13, 2012 12:52pm EDT

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court ordered the release on Friday of a well-known academic and 15 other people who had been detained while on trial over accusations of links to Kurdish militants, state media reported.

The order appeared to be one of the first outcomes of legal reforms tightening up conditions for courts to hold people in jail before verdicts.

The changes were pushed through this month amid complaints by campaigners, and the country's own prime minister, over the power of the country's prosecutors.

Busra Ersanli, a professor from Istanbul's Marmara University, is one of more than 200 defendants charged in the case which has drawn international criticism over Ankara's record on freedom of speech.

They are accused of ties to the Union of Kurdistan Communities, which the indictment says is the urban wing of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ersanli rejects the charges.

State broadcaster TRT Haber said the court decided to release her and 15 others on Friday, though all remained on trial.

The PKK has waged an armed campaign against the state for autonomy in the mainly Kurdish southeast that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984. It is labeled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

The legal reforms were pushed rapidly through parliament before the summer recess.

Rights campaigners have repeatedly criticized the use of pre-trial detention saying some defendants had been jailed for years without a verdict in sight.

These reforms also abolished the Special Authority Courts which handle terrorism and conspiracy related trials.

Among the most high-profile defendants seeking release are former military chief General Ilker Basbug and two opposition MPs, jailed over the alleged Ergenekon coup plot. A court ruling on their continued detention may not come until the end of July.

The special courts, one of which is trying 100s of military officers in the "Sledgehammer" case, have helped rein in the once all-powerful army, which is firmly under civilian control after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's 10 years in power.

The court handling the "Sledgehammer" case, a plot which allegedly included plans to bomb mosques in Istanbul and trigger conflict with Greece to pave the way for an army takeover, rejected defendants' release requests on Friday, media said.

Critics of the courts argue that they have been used to stifle dissent, with academics, journalists and other army officers among the hundreds being tried in the five-year-old case against the secularist Ergenekon network.

Erdogan himself has criticized the handling of conspiracy trials, accusing special prosecutors of acting as if they were "a different power within the state".

After this month's reform, any future cases concerning coups and terrorism-related crimes will be heard by regional high criminal courts, not special courts.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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