Accessibility links

Turkey: Arrest Of Kurdistan Workers Party Leader Sets Off Tug-Of-War

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 17 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Rome last week has set off a tug-of-war between Italy, which is weighing his request for political asylum, and Turkey, which wants him extradited.

Ocalan was arrested when he arrived in Rome Thursday (Nov. 12) on a flight from Moscow. Italian police used an international arrest warrant previously issued by Germany, where he is wanted on charges including murder for PKK attacks on Kurdish rivals there.

For 14 years, Ocalan's PKK has fought Ankara for an independent Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey, but during that time he was not often seen in public. His arrest brought Ocalan dramatically into public view after he disappeared from his long-time base in Syria last month. Ankara had earlier threatened military action against Damascus if it did not expel him. Ocalan was initially reported to have gone into hiding near Moscow, but Russian officials made clear they would not give him political asylum.

Ocalan's arrest at Rome's international airport appeared to make his choice of Italy as a safe haven an unhappy one. But analysts say Ocalan may have taken a calculated risk. Now under surveillance in a military hospital, he has already launched a bid for political asylum. At the same time, he is able to take advantage of a provision in Italian law that forbids Rome from extraditing criminals to countries which have the death penalty --such as Turkey.

The stage is therefore set for a diplomatic struggle over whether Italy will grant Ocalan asylum or heed the extradition requests which are sure to follow from Turkey and possibly Germany.

After meeting yesterday in Rome with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said that Turkey, in his words, has done everything to press Rome to hand over Ocalan. Cem, who has often accused Ocalan of being a terrorist, also said that terrorism is a crime which Italy is obliged to fight.

But Italian politicians are already signaling they will not be pushed. Italian Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema has called Ocalan's case complex and delicate, and said Italy will resolve it with respect for its own laws and principles.

Turkey is likely to put all the pressure it can on Rome to turn over Ocalan. Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin has already indirectly threatened to exclude Italy from participating in bidding for lucrative Turkish defense contracts totaling $9 billion if it does not cooperate over extradition.

Sezgin said Ankara will evaluate, in his words, "bidding countries' attitudes toward Turkey as well as criteria such as cost effectiveness and technology" when buying weapons.

In Ankara, there also are moves afoot to end the death penalty in Turkey and with it Italy's legal basis for refusing to extradite Ocalan. Turkish Justice Minister Hasan Denizkurdu was quoted by the Turkish daily "Hurriyet" as saying yesterday he would present a draft to abolish the death penalty to the cabinet this week. No execution has actually been carried out in Turkey since the mid-1980s. Denizkurdu has proposed that Ankara quickly abolish capital punishment and replace it with a life sentence served under heavy security measures.

Meanwhile, German officials are reported to be considering whether to ask for Ocalan's extradition on charges of ordering terrorist crimes in Germany more than eight years ago. After his arrest last week, the German federal court said it had not excluded the possibility that it would demand extradition.

The Germans accuse Ocalan of being the ringleader of a terrorist group, a criminal offense in Germany, as well as of ordering a political killing in 1984 of a Kurdish rival near Frankfurt. An investigation is still open as to whether Ocalan ordered fire-bombings of Turkish offices in Germany.

The U.S. State Department yesterday welcomed Italy's arrest of Ocalan and said he should be extradited, but did not specify to where. Spokesman James Rubin noted that the PKK has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Government and that Ocalan's arrest is an important step in fighting global terrorism. He said Washington believes that the governments of Italy, Germany and Turkey should work together to find a solution.