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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turks Pull Military Judge Off Kurd Case

ANKARA, Turkey -- Responding to European pressure, parliament voted Friday to remove the military judge from the court hearing the trial of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The vote, which amended two articles of the constitution to exclude military judges from all State Security Courts, was approved by a vote of 423 to 40. Constitutional reforms require a two-thirds majority in Turkey.

European states and human rights organizations have sharply criticized the courts, saying the presence of a military judge as part of the three-member tribunals leads to bias within the court and calls into question their decisions.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the courts are not independent and also has been pressuring Turkey to reform them.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's party strongly backed Friday's vote, saying that Turkey must reform its court system to reach European standards.

Following the vote, the army colonel who has been on the three-member panel hearing Ocalan's case is expected to be replaced by a civilian judge who has been attending the trial as a substitute. The trial resumes on Wednesday.

Ocalan, whose rebels have been fighting Turkish forces for autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984, is on trial on charges of treason and separatism. He is widely expected to be sentenced to death.

Friday's vote, however, may only be a small move toward blunting European criticism of the Ocalan trial.

Critics repeatedly have complained that Ocalan has only been allowed to speak with his lawyers in the presence of soldiers wearing black ski masks.

The Ankara-based Human Rights Association dismissed the vote as a "political maneuver."

"The courts need to be abolished, the amendment is just cosmetic," said Nazmi Gur, acting head of the rights group.

The president of the group, Akin Birdal, was imprisoned earlier this month for publicly calling for an end to the conflict between Ocalan's rebels and the Turkish military and more cultural rights for Kurds.

As part of the State Security Court system, defendants can be held in detention for up to seven days without access to a lawyer.

European human rights groups have also criticized the justice system in Turkey, saying that detainees have been tortured and forced to confess to crimes.

The chief prosecutor of the Ankara State Security Court, Nuh Mete Yuksel, called the removal of the military officers a "great loss for Turkey."

"They should not have been separated from the security courts," he said. "I do not approve of the change."