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Turkey: Ocalan Sentenced To Death, But Ultimate Fate Undetermined

By Gokalp Bayramli

Mudanya, Turkey; 29 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A Turkish court today sentenced Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to death by hanging. But his ultimate fate has yet to be determined in a political drama that will take months to play out.

Turkey's State Security Court sentenced Ocalan, the founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to death on charges of separatism. The passing of the verdict and the sentencing took only a few hours to complete in the courtroom on the Turkish prison island of Imrali near Istanbul.

The hearing started at 9:45 Turkish time. Two minutes later Abdullah Ocalan was led into the court room and the presiding judge asked him to make his final statement. As he has said repeatedly during his trial, Ocalan again stressed that he cannot accept the charges of separatism against him. The court's three judges then left the room for 30 minutes of consultations before the presiding judge issued their decision. The verdict: guilty of trying to divide the country. The sentence: death.

The sentence was read out by presiding judge Turgut Okyay:

"Our court has come to the following verdict, which has been proven. The accused, Abdullah Ocalan, has led and organized the terrorist PKK organization through the decisions he has made and through the orders and instructions he has given and through the actions he has carried out in order to separate part of Turkish territory from the State's authority. Based on these actions and with reference to Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, he is hereby sentenced to death."

The finality with which the sentence was read gave the impression that as far as Ankara is concerned, Ocalan will now pay the ultimate price for what Turkey considers years of treason. Ankara blames Ocalan for leading the PKK in a 14-year war for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey in which tens of thousands of people have died.

But anlaysts say that the death sentence belies the fact that Turkish leaders will still have to carefully weigh the domestic and international political impact of hanging their arch-enemy before actually doing so. Those decisions will be made as Ocalan's case now passes on to further stages in the Turkish legal process. The verdict still must be approved by the Court of Appeals before it goes on to the Turkish parliament for the deputies' approval and, finally, to the Turkish president.

Mensur Akgun, a Turkish political analyst, told RFE/RL that the Turkish parliament will be under intense pressure from the public to uphold the death sentence against Ocalan. But he says the deputies are also keenly aware that Ocalan's execution might only sharpen -- not end -- efforts by the PKK to carry on its fight with Ankara. Akgun says that there is also the reaction of western nations to weigh, but he says that is a secondary concern.

"Maybe we should not focus on the reaction of Europe at first. Because this would just increase the problems in Turkey. It is very useful to look inside. If such a verdict is approved by the Turkish Parliament, the feelings of the people who have lost their relatives in this war or conflict or because of terrorism might be satisfied. But it would probably not bring a solution to the problem. Instead it will only further sharpen the conflict. Because of this it is important to focus on the inner dimension of the problem. The real threat comes from the inside. And I believe that the members of our parliament will be aware of this."

Ankara will also face strong pressure from the European Union not to execute Ocalan. The EU has repeatedly urged Turkey in the past to abolish or suspend the death penalty as part of its efforts to press Ankara to improve its human rights record. Ankara's human rights policies have long been an obstacle to Turkey's efforts to forge closer economic ties with the trading bloc or to eventually become a member. Even before the verdict was read, the group of lawyers defending Ocalan announced that they will appeal it to the European Court of Human Rights.

Akgun says that the EU states' also fear that if they fail to press Ankara to not execute Ocalan, they will face widespread civil unrest from Kurdish militants living in Europe. Mensur Akgun says:

"When it comes to [the death sentence] it will have political impact. There will without doubt be protest movements in Turkey as well as in Europe. Europe will apply political pressure to protect themselves from this. And of course this will have an effect on the relations between Turkey and Europe."

The German Interior Ministry said yesterday it has taken all necessary measures to deal with demonstrations and violent protest. Germany, as well as Austria and other European countries, have sizeable Kurdish minorities among their immigrant work forces. After Ocalan was captured and brought to Turkey early this year there were widespread demonstrations by PKK sympathizers across Europe.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulen Ecevit seemed to suggest that his government has yet to finally decide what to do with Ocalan in his comments to reporters today immediately following the announcement of the death sentence. Bulen Ecevit said:

"The courts are independent in Turkey. May the verdict given on Imrali island bring good to our people. The trial process might continue because the way to appeal the verdict is open. That's why I cannot predict what will happen in the future."

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel was equally non-committal on the verdict today, only saying that the court had done its duty. Turkish presidents have the power to waive the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment with forced labor and have done so regularly since 1982, the last time capital punishment was used in Turkey.