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Europe: Legal Experts Search For Solution To Ocalan Problem

  • Roland Eggleston

Prague, 30 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- German and Italian legal experts met in Rome today for preliminary discussions on creating an international court to try the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan on charges of murder, terrorism and torture.

Experts at the German Foreign Ministry described today's talks as a preliminary review of the possibilities and warned that no immediate decisions were likely. A German spokesman said: "This is a political issue which, in the end, will probably require a decision by the European Union or the Council of Europe and not just our two countries." He declined to speculate on what sort of court might be empowered to try Ocalan or where it might sit.

An international court has been proposed as a way of putting Ocalan on trial for some of the thousands of deaths blamed on his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) over the last 14 years. Ankara has criticized the idea -- it wants Ocalan extradited to stand trial in Turkey.

Ocalan was arrested in Rome earlier this month, but Italy says he has committed no crimes on its territory apart from the minor offense of illegal entry. Germany has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of organizing killings on its territory in the 1980s as well as a series of arson attacks in 1993. But the new German government now says it will not ask for his extradition because it fears unrest among some 600,000 Kurds and more than two million Turks living in Germany. Italy refuses to extradite Ocalan to Turkey because he could face the death penalty there.

Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini told the Turin newspaper "La Stampa" yesterday that it might be possible to create an international court on the basis of a 1977 Council of Europe convention against terrorism. He said that would require the agreement of the Council of Europe but emphasized that a European Tribunal could be created "if the political will exists."

Dini was supported today by a senior representative of the United Nations in Rome, Steffan de Mistura. De Mistura told the newspaper "Corriere della Sera" that he believed the convention would allow the creation of a one-time court to try Ocalan, possibly in The Hague. He said the convention allowed for the transfer of legal procedures from one country to another.

But several international legal experts have doubts about such a move. In a discussion on German radio last night, some asked from what authority the court would derive its jurisdiction and which laws would serve as a basis for its judgment. In their view, a Council of Europe convention by itself does not provide an adequate legal basis.

Others questioned whether existing international tribunals had the right to try Ocalan. Some argued that he could not be brought before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague because he is not considered a war criminal. No state of war exists between Turkey and the PKK. A new international court created in Rome earlier this year will have the authority to try individuals for human-rights abuses, but it will not be functional for several years and is not authorized to judge alleged crimes committed before its creation. Ocalan's Italian lawyer, Giuliano Pisapia, says the PKK leader is willing to face trial by an international court. It would give him a platform to renew his claim that the PKK was fighting for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey and for liberty from an oppressor. Pisapia said he would ask an international court to decide whether a "situation of war" existed between Turkey and the PKK. Ocalan's international status could be affected if the court agreed that a state of war did exist. Turkey denies it, saying the PKK is no more than a terrorist organization.

Italy is also considering other means of resolving the situation. It has been suggested that since Ocalan entered the country illegally, he could simply be expelled. But first there has to be a country willing to accept him. Foreign Minister Dini was in Moscow today for talks which included the Ocalan problem. Ocalan went to Italy from Moscow and it is believed that Dini suggested that Moscow should take him back again.

Officially, all negotiations and possibilities remain open until December 22. That day marks the end of the 40-day period allowed under Italian law for Germany to request Ocalan's extradition.

But Germany's Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, told German television last night that this period could be extended. She said there was "no reason for a hasty decision." Ocalan, she suggested, could remain in Italy for a long time until a court was found to try him.

Italy has other ideas, however. But apart from Turkey, no country seems ready to take Ocalan off its hands.