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Turkey: Human Rights

1.43 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary spell out the Government's human rights policy in some detail yesterday, the more so because his remarks can be applied immediately to the case of Turkey, something of a litmus test of the policy, as we have always soft-pedalled the gross and persistent human rights violations by Turkey in the past for larger geopolitical reasons. Now Mr. Robin Cook says without qualification that Britain will support measures within the international community to express our condemnation of what he describes as,

Turkey is not a liberal democracy, but a country governed by the resultant of a number of forces uneasily and unstably balanced against each other: the army, the Islamists, the extreme right, the centre right and the criminal elements, all competing with each other for power and forming alliances which are not subject to popular approval and which are sometimes invisible. That means that there is a declared policy, which can be studied in the speeches made by Ministers in the Turkish Grand National Assembly and at international forums, and a clandestine policy, sometimes at odds with the official version.

This is the context in which human rights in Turkey have to be considered. If one only looks at the statements for public consumption and not at what is happening on the ground, one would get entirely the wrong impression. Thus in his speech to the Grand National Assembly last week, the new Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz promised to,

    "show extreme care to safeguard the principles of democracy, secularism, and a social state of law".

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He said that his government,

    "considers freedom of thought and expression, conscience and religious belief ... as the essential principles of our public life".

He gave assurances that the government would take all necessary measures to ensure the respect for human rights, which is provided by the Turkish constitution and by international agreement.

The trouble is that Mr. Yilmaz said much the same thing when he was last Prime Minister. On 7th March 1996, in a similar speech to the TGNA, he said that,

    "only through a strong and true democracy can the universally-accepted principles such as the sovereignty of the nation, the guarantee of fundamental rights, judicial equality, the supremacy of law, social, economic and political plurality, and participation, tolerance and compromise exist"--

indeed, everything except motherhood and apple pie.

Very similar rhetoric could be found in a speech made by his predecessor Mrs. Tansu Ciller, when she came into office in June 1993. Yet, for the past 13 years, there has been a bitter armed struggle between the forces of the state and the Kurdish people of the south east of the country, involving not just a few thousand combatants in the PKK's armed wing, the Kurdistan National Liberation Army, but virtually the whole of the civilian population. That war has continued because, over this entire period and even now, the Kurds are deprived of their fundamental rights which Mr. Yilmaz says they ought to have. He describes this as,

    "our struggle against separatist terrorism",

ignoring the fact that the PKK's goal is not an independent Kurdish state, but autonomy for the region where the majority of the people are Kurdish, and also tendentiously labelling the PKK as terrorists when the vast majority of acts of violence against non-combatants are committed by the state's armed forces, and their quisling allies, the village guards--Kurds who are paid to fight their own brothers. I am not going to talk about the propaganda war that Ankara wages in Europe and north America against the armed opposition, except to point out that if the Turkish authorities really wanted to protect civilians, they would comply with the requests by the ICRC for an invitation to visit the region, and to discuss the services that they could provide there to ensure that Common Article 3 of the conventions is being honoured by both parties to the conflict.

Will the Government urge Turkey to invite the ICRC, and to accept that the conflict in the south east is one to which Article 3 does apply? Will the Government ask the chairman-in-office of the OSCE to seek a formal opinion on the question of the application of Article 3 from a representative group of lawyers? In the meanwhile, will the Government ask the chairman-in-office to conduct an inquiry, preferably with the co-operation of the Turkish authorities--but if necessary without them--on the circumstances in which an estimated 2.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes in south-east Anatolia.

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I suggest that that inquiry should be conducted in the light of the OSCE's Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security, which provides as follows:

    "If recourse to force cannot be avoided in performing internal security missions, each participating State will ensure that its use must be commensurate with the needs for enforcement. The armed forces will take due care to avoid injury to civilians or their property".

There is abundant evidence of the incessant, systematic violation of this obligation, which merely codified what was already customary international law. I was in Sirnak in September 1992, shortly after it had been heavily bombarded by the army in August. I met some of the injured residents in hospital. In October 1993, I gathered further evidence of the forced depopulation of villages, travelling round the region in the company of Leyla Zana MP, now imprisoned for her courageous stand on behalf of the Kurdish people. The OSCE is to review the implementation of that code at a special meeting in September, and the Minister, Doug Henderson, says that this will provide an excellent forum to discuss democratic controls on armed forces with all signatory states. That is one important aspect of the code, but the section dealing with injury to civilians is also vital. Will the Government suggest a new procedure, under which NGOs could submit evidence of violations of the code to a public tribunal, analogous to the UN Human Rights Commission?

As a result of the reports that I submitted on violations of human rights in Turkey, together with the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, whom I am pleased to see on the Government Front Bench, I am a prohibited person, not allowed to enter the country after four visits and four reports on what I saw and heard. Others banned are Jonathan Sugden and Helmut Oberdiek of Amnesty International, Aliza Marcus of Reuters, who suffered prosecution under the anti-terror law, and Pam O'Toole of the BBC. Will the Government request Ankara to lift these bans and allow journalists and human rights observers to travel freely in the south-east region without being escorted everywhere by the Turkish military? As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, will recall, we were so escorted when we were there in 1994.

According to a document leaked from the National Security Council, an authority dominated by the military which takes all the decisions on the south-east, it has now been decided not only to jam the broadcasts of the independent broadcaster, Med-TV, but also to monitor and obstruct human rights NGOs which draw attention to the human rights violations in the Kurdish region. The jamming of Med-TV, which I understand the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, will deal with later, must be a breach of the Helsinki Accords, and should be taken up with Ankara by the OSCE. Could we prompt the chairman-in-office to do so? The intention to monitor human rights monitors from abroad is nothing new but there is a nasty suggestion that a smear campaign should be mounted against people abroad who criticise Turkish human rights abuses. Having been libelled myself in a Turkish national newspaper, which had to apologise, publish a retraction and pay me damages because copies

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were distributed in this country, I can well believe that defamation is now to be used more widely as an instrument against other human rights activists.

In an important judgment last September, the European Court of Human Rights found against Turkey in the case of Akdivar, who successfully claimed that his rights were violated by the destruction of his home in the village of Kelekci in September 1992. That case was also important because the court noted that all applicants must be able to communicate freely with the European Commission without being subjected to any form of pressure from the authorities to withdraw or modify their complaints. Akdivar's was one of 62 cases brought with the assistance of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project which have so far been declared admissible, and one of two where the court has delivered judgment, the other being the case of Aksoy, who was tortured when he was detained for 14 days in the Mardin headquarters of the anti-terrorist branch.

There are literally hundreds of other cases in the queue. In an Answer to me the noble Baroness indicated that 562 were registered in 1996 alone. However, the Turkish authorities are doing their best to ensure that it is impossible to collect further evidence. Many journalists, lawyers and human rights activists have been murdered or disappeared in the south-east. On 23rd May the Diyarbakir branch of the Turkish human rights organisation was closed down, and the president, Mahmut Sakar, and at least five officials were taken into custody. As Amnesty International pointed out, the closure followed years of harassment including the arrest, abduction and extra-judicial execution of officials, bomb attacks and a hail of litigation. Four other offices of the IHD--the human rights organisation--have been closed since then, in Konya, Malatya, Sanliurfa and Balikesir, and since the IHD has been the main organisation collecting witness statements for ECHR cases, this appears to be a systematic attempt to obstruct the work of the Commission, contrary to law.

The attacks on the IHD are also a part of the wider assault on freedom of expression, in the light of which Mr. Yilmaz's assurances ring hollow. Before Turkey was invited to join the European customs union at the end of 1996, Mrs. Ciller, the then Prime Minister, conceded changes in the anti-terror law, the importance of which was greatly exaggerated by Mr. David Davis, then Minister at the Foreign Office.

Last Sunday President Demirel expressed regret to a visiting delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, led by the former hostage Terry Anderson, that Turkey is the country with the largest number of journalists in prison--at least 78, according to the CPJ. Yet in the same breath he seemed to be making excuses, by saying that if somebody supports terrorism he deserves to be locked up. In Turkey, the definition of terrorism extends to any speech or writing which may undermine the unity of the state. If we had such a law in this country, it would mean that no one could advocate a referendum on the Scottish parliament, which your Lordships might think would save a lot of time in this House!

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Human Rights Watch named Turkey and China earlier in the month as the top persecutors of writers. The last case list of the Writers in Prison Committee had eight pages on Turkey, more than any other country except China. The UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Mr. Abid Hussain, reported that there were consistent and credible reports of:

    "The death or torture of press professionals while in police custody",

and of all the other allegations that we know only too well from other sources such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He recommended that writers and journalists who had been sentenced for the peaceful expression of their views, even when these ran counter to the philosophy of the state, should have their sentences annulled. Among the long list of cases he invited the Turkish authorities to reconsider were those of the 185 writers, publishers, intellectuals and artists who were picked from 1,080 who collectively issued a book entitled Freedom of Thought in Turkey, consisting of a collection of writings for which the authors were on trial or imprisoned.

Another case he mentioned was that of Ms. Leyla Zana MP, whom I have already mentioned, who was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, along with three of her parliamentary colleagues. The UN working group on arbitrary detention had declared in November 1995 that the detention of these MPs was arbitrary and had asked the Turkish authorities to release them. The Inter-parliamentary Union, at its meeting in Seoul last April, welcomed the initiatives the Turkish authorities said they were taking to bring Turkey into line with European human rights standards, and again strongly hoped this would lead to the release of the imprisoned MPs and the lifting of sentences imposed on their colleagues.

Amnesty International has expressed particular concern about the detention and torture of children. It says that children are often detained under the anti-terror law and have none of the safeguards which apply to adults. It is still receiving credible reports of the torture of children.

There is no time to go into detail on the extent of torture in Turkey, which Mr. Yilmaz, like his predecessors, has pledged himself to abolish. In October 1991 Mr. Demirel, who was then a candidate for the office of Prime Minister and is now president, promised,

    "a new Turkey--the walls of all police stations will be made of glass".

Yet in March 1997 Human Rights Watch still reported widespread police torture in pre-trial detention by the anti-terror police. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, after visiting places of detention on a number of occasions over recent years, most recently in September 1996, asserted that,

    "resort to torture and other forms of severe ill treatment remains a common occurrence in police establishments in Turkey. To attempt to characterise the problem as one of isolated acts of the kind which can occur in any country--as some are wont to do--is to fly in the face of the facts".

There are a couple of glimmers of light amid the darkness. The period of incommunicado detention allowed under the law has been reduced, and the right

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of access to a lawyer after four days in custody for suspects under the anti-terror law has been restored. That seems to have had some effect on the number of cases of torture that are being reported, although closure of the IHD offices may account for at least part of the reduction.

Further, Turkey has invited the UN Working Group on Disappearances and the rapporteur on torture, Dr. Nigel Rodley, to visit Turkey but I gather from Dr. Rodley this is not until the end of 1998. It has to be recognised, however, that many of the recommendations made in the past by the CPT and the UN Committee Against Torture have not been implemented. There is no point in agreeing to receive visits unless there is an intention to comply with the suggestions that are made.

Finally, I refer to the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq which is an illegal escapade that has resulted in further violations of human rights in those parts of the territory which are occupied by the Turkish forces and in the sector run by their allies, the Kurdistan Democratic Party under Massoud Barzani. Ministers have confirmed that under Article 51 of the UN Charter, Turkey should have reported this operation immediately to the Security Council. We have reminded them of their obligation to do so. Has that been done? Has it reported to the Security Council? If not, do we as a permanent member intend to lay the matter before the Security Council as a breach of the charter? Mr. Yilmaz's only reference to the matter in his speech to the TGNA was the sentence:

    "We will continue to take all kinds of measures in southeast Anatolia until the power vacuum in northern Iraq--which constitutes a threat to the security of southeast Anatolia and consequently of our entire country--is eliminated and until Iraq's territorial integrity is restored".

That appears to confirm that the occupation is indefinite, making it impossible for UN monitors to do their work under Resolution 986 in that part of the territory and raising the fear that widespread human rights violations are occurring in the occupied part of northern Iraq as the troops hunt for the PKK guerrillas whose supposed presence there is the excuse for the invasion.

Mr. Yilmaz says that his main priority is to prepare a new electoral register and to establish the legal and administrative arrangements for a new election. That process may take six months, and in that time I suggest that it would be unrealistic to expect the human rights situation to be transformed. The most that can be expected is that specific reforms may appear in the manifestos of the parties, and that the election will be held under conditions which enable the Kurds to have a voice in the new parliament, opening the way for a negotiated settlement of their claims for autonomy and the right to maintain their identity.

We cannot allow the Kurdish party to be excluded by violence and intimidation, as they were in the local elections of 1994, or by an unrealistic threshold, as in the general election of 1995. This may be the last chance for a peaceful settlement of the problem which has handicapped Turkey for the whole of the 75 years of her existence as a modern state. We should make it plain to Ankara that it is the last chance for Turkey to secure entry to the European Union. If it cannot find a peaceful

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way of accommodating the Kurdish people within a new constitutional framework, we shall be unable to admit it to a Europe whose values it has rejected.

2.2 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, as well as congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on keeping so effectively this important subject on the agenda, I commend my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary for timing his speech on human rights to fit in so well with today's Unstarred Question.

I have visited Turkey only once, but I have met many Turkish people, including the Turkish ambassador to London. I have always found Turkish people to be friendly and courteous on a personal level. Turkey is an important player in the world scene, situated as it is, between Europe, central Asia, Russia and the Middle East. That is why we would like to be on good terms with Turkey, especially as it is a very beautiful country to visit, with a rich cultural heritage, and not least because of its excellent cuisine. Turkey is a member of NATO, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. It has signed a number of international conventions on human rights and trades extensively with Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. Yet with all those advantages and aspirations, and its democratic facade, Turkey still has one of the worst human rights records in the world. I note that mention of Turkey was carefully omitted from the Foreign Secretary's speech, along with a number of other countries with bad human rights records. I believe that the Foreign Secretary was always diplomatic and has learned perhaps to be even more so at the Foreign Office.

The Turkish police and security forces have inherited a tradition of cruelty from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Torture and beating of suspects while in detention has been the norm for centuries. Unfortunately, despite claims by Mrs. Ciller, Mr. Yilmaz and President Demirel, the practice continues even though, we hope, it is diminishing slightly. As I reported the last time we debated this issue in February 1996, Dr. Nigel Rodley, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, placed Turkey in the highest position listed with regard to the numbers of cases of torture reported to him. My noble friend will be aware of the extensive documentation by Amnesty International of arbitrary arrest, torture, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, the disruption of public meetings and the persecution of trade unionists, human rights organisations, and those who uphold Kurdish self-determination. As the noble Lord described fully, freedom of the press is heavily curtailed. I could go on.

As a doctor I am very concerned about the coercion with which medical personnel are faced in order to make them provide medical certificates on prisoners which omit evidence of torture or ill treatment that has clearly taken place. Those who refuse to give those false, whitewashing certificates are threatened, sometimes later beaten up and occasionally killed. A full report on this coercion was provided by Physicians for Human Rights and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last August. The report describes the results of a survey of 60 Turkish forensic physicians attending a conference in Istanbul. Of those doctors,

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60 per cent. agreed that almost everyone held in detention in Turkey is tortured; and they did not include beating as torture.

For me the Unstarred Question is also timely because it allows me to report to the House and to the Government on a conference that I attended in Hamburg at the end of last month. It was sponsored by the Kurdish Red Crescent, an organisation not yet recognised by the International Red Cross or Red Crescent because Kurdistan is not an independent nation. The conference was entitled: "War and Health in Kurdistan". About 20 speakers described various aspects of their experiences of the impact of the conflict, on health and healthcare services, mainly in south-east Turkey but also to some extent in Iraq.

This conflict, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, implied, is a low-intensity guerrilla war. The Turkish Government wish the outside world and the population of Turkey to regard the conflict as a mopping up operation against the PKK, which they label as a purely terrorist organisation. My noble friend Lady Symons, following this line, used the same terminology when answering a Starred Question about a month ago. Turkish government sources suggest that the organisation can be defeated militarily, that in fact it is on the verge of collapse if only its bases in northern Iraq could be destroyed.

In the view of almost all non-Turkish observers--the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, gave quite a long list of them--that is a false picture. The PKK has indeed carried out acts of violence which have resulted in the deaths of non-combatants, and for that must stand condemned. However, Abdul Ocalan, the PKK's leader, has now said that the PKK will observe the common article of the Geneva convention relating to non-combatants and prisoners in internal conflicts as well as international conflicts.

The PKK came into being because the Kurds of Turkey could make no progress in achieving their legitimate rights through the democratic process. It now has the covert support of a large part of the Kurdish population, who, incidentally, constantly replenish its armed wing. My noble friend will be fully aware that the Kurdish language is forbidden in schools and that the Kurdish cultural identity is denied. Entry into the main stream of Turkish social and political life is only possible for Kurds if they deny their Kurdish identity.

The attempt to crush the PKK has turned into a war against the Kurdish population as a whole, with the wholesale destruction or evacuation of some 3,000 villages in an attempt to deprive the PKK of its support and supply base. That is a technique familiar to Britain. I am not sure that we did not invent this method of countering guerrilla warfare. We certainly used it in India and more recently in Malaya in the 1940s and 1950s. This has resulted in a very large internal refugee problem for Turkey, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned, of some 3 million people--some estimates are much higher. These populations have very largely been left to fend for themselves, with those who are lucky staying in very overcrowded conditions with

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friends or relatives in the larger towns and cities or else building their own shanty town structures on the edges of these towns.

One of the problems in measuring the extent of the human impact of the conflict is the lack of accurate statistics, both on the size of the displaced population and as a proper measure of the health impact of the conflict. Evidence from the Turkish medical association and my personal observations on a visit to Diyarbakir two years ago confirm eye witness reports and local research presented at the conference in Hamburg that health services and the state of public health have greatly deteriorated as a result of the conflict.

To summarise, that means that, as a result of the ensuing poverty and malnutrition, poor housing and overcrowding, lack of clean water and disruption of basic healthcare, the incidence of infectious diseases such as typhoid and TB and the infant mortality rate are increasing. In this relatively backward area steady progress was in fact being made in public health up to the mid-1980s (with WHO assistance). One of the demands of the Hamburg conference was that the area should be opened to a permanent delegation of the International Red Cross in concert with the Turkish Red Crescent. Another demand was that the World Health Organisation should,

    "take note of the enormous inequalities in the health situation and medical aid ascertained by the Turkish Chamber of Physicians and other organisations and take the necessary measures".

One of those would be to make a rapid but accurate independent assessment of the deplorable public health situation. The conference also called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,

    "to register statistically and take under its mandate the approximately 5 million Kurdish refugees resulting from this conflict"--

a request which would, if granted, be a vital first step in providing appropriate help.

As an aside, I should mention that UNHCR is in fact involved in assisting the resettlement in Turkey of the refugees who were displaced by the closure of the Atrush refugee camp for Turkish Kurds in the safe haven region of Iraq. So far, very few of those have returned to Turkey and my information is that little has been done to resettle them, although the UNHCR provided Turkey with the necessary funds. All the demands made by the Hamburg conference in reality depend in the first instance on a request from the Turkish Government to the international organisation concerned, which at present they are not prepared to make. Presumably that is because they do not want the outside world to know the true situation.

Can I ask my noble friend, through the Foreign Office, to press the Turkish Government to ask these international humanitarian agencies--that is the International Red Cross, the World Health Organisation and UNHCR--for their assistance in addition to allowing access to the human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and the OSCE, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury? If the Turkish Government were to answer those requests, world opinion and many human rights organisations would applaud, whereas if they continue to refuse, the

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conclusion will be drawn that they have something to hide. If a country has something to hide, should it still remain a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE? Should we still be collaborating with it militarily as a full member of NATO, supplying weapons and assistance with military training, as my noble friend Lord Gilbert confirmed in a Written Answer to me two weeks ago--although he declined to say what kind of training it was? In parenthesis, I appreciate the Foreign Secretary's reference in his speech to the review of our military training assistance programme and its possible diversion to encouraging good practice. It is something which has a particular application to Turkey.

Is it not reasonable to ask that, if Turkey wishes to remain in those organisations--the Council of Europe, OSCE and NATO--it should be required to put its house in order or face expulsion?

Finally, could I ask my noble friend to confirm that we shall not only raise the issue of individual prisoners of conscience at bilateral meetings (as Robin Cook promised in his speech), but that we shall raise the wider issues that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury and I mentioned today, whenever the opportunity arises? If there is no response, if there is no steady improvement, will the Government consider, together with others, the imposition of a progressive series of sanctions, starting with expulsion from the organisations that I mentioned which, after all, exist very largely to uphold and defend human rights?

2.16 p.m.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising the Question today since it is both topical and urgent. It may be helpful to have a brief look at the history of minorities in Turkey. I start with the Armenians who were once a large and thriving group. By 1918, however, hardly any were left alive in eastern Turkey. A "final solution" had been found for them. Genocide is, I fear, not an exaggerated term.

The Assyrians are another Christian minority living along Turkey's border with Syria. Their numbers have fallen from well over 100,000 to a good deal less than 3,000. The causes are voluntary emigration, reinforced by real discrimination coming from the Turkish state. Assyrians could not expect to find employment in the civil service or in state industries. In the past 13 years they have also been caught in the cross-fire between the Turkish army and the insurgents.

The Laz, another small group of people living in north-east Turkey along the boundary with Georgia, have complained of lack of education in their own language and of the consequent dangers of their culture and identity disappearing.

Far greater and more longstanding are the problems facing millions of Kurds. At the origin of the Turkish Republic, the new state was supposed to be a partnership between Turks and Kurds. Ataturk, however, devised a unitary state and proclaimed the slogan, "Happy is he who calls himself a Turk". In 1994 I saw those words painted in huge letters on the mountainside above the city of Van, formerly Armenian and now largely Kurdish in population. The Kurds were not allowed

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even to describe themselves as a national community and were officially referred to as "mountain Turks". Is it surprising, therefore, that in the 1920s and 1930s there were constant uprisings of Kurds against Turks and a permanent severe repression of the Kurdish population?

The Kurdish language, which is akin to Iranian, has never been permitted in the schools and universities of republican Turkey. Kurdish may not be used in law courts or for any form of public business. No Kurdish newspapers, radio or TV are allowed, despite the recent considerable proliferation of radio and TV stations. Even tapes of Kurdish poetry and music are regularly confiscated and destroyed by the army and police. The Kurdish language only survives because it continues in full use in family life. Such is the level of cultural intolerance to be found in a member of NATO and in a country which has signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which belongs to the OSCE and which aspires to full membership of the European Union.

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