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Turkey: Ocalan Death Sentence Puts Country At Crossroads

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The death sentence passed down by a Turkish court June 29 against Kurdish insurgent leader Abdullah Ocalan places Turkey at a crossroads.

Turks have largely praised the sentence and in some communities there was even dancing in the streets to celebrate that the man blamed for the deaths of 30,000 people has been sentenced to hang. However, Kurds in both Turkey and abroad are incensed.

The persecuted but still legal pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) says the verdict will cause new tension and violence and that the death sentence if carried out would isolate Turkey from the modern world.

The exiled leadership of Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) describes the decision as "a state threat against the Kurdish people ... a dark stain on the history of the Turkish people that will negatively affect the future, an inexcusable legal mistake in terms of the law of humanity." The PKK notes that although June 29 was the anniversary of the execution of the leader of the 1925 Kurdish revolution, Seyh Sait, "the current Kurdistan is not the Kurdistan of 1925 and the Kurdish people are not the people of 1925 who had no leader, no organization and no army."

In an ominous warning of violence to come, a PKK official in Brussels yesterday said "the Kurdish people are very angry and irritated, which means it is dangerous for foreigners to go to Turkey".

The security court found Ocalan guilty of leading and organizing the "terrorist PKK organization ... in order to separate part of Turkish territory from the state's authority."

It is still far from clear whether Ocalan will ever be sent to the gallows. No death sentence has been carried out in Turkey since 1984, and before Ocalan can be executed, an appeals trial must be held and then parliament and the president must give their approval.

Turkey is under considerable pressure from European states and Russia not to execute Ocalan, and the EU is likely to freeze relations with Turkey in the event Ocalan is executed, thus postponing any possibility of inviting Turkey to open talks on joining the EU.

In the U.S., neither the State Department nor the White House has yet commented directly on the verdict, noting the judicial process is still in progress. However, State Department spokesman James Rubin did express concern about how Turkish authorities handled the first nine days of Ocalan's detention and the limitations on contacts between Ocalan and his lawyers.

International support for the verdict has been sparse, but has included Russian radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and members of Azerbaijan's opposition. Former Azeri president Ebulfez Elcibey says it's normal to issue a death sentence against the head of a terrorist organization who has taken the lives of thousands of innocent people. Similarly, Azeri National Independence Party chairman Itibar Memedov says he "congratulates the Turkish people" on Ocalan's death sentence.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit have indicated they may allow the European Court of Human Rights to hear the case, but have been unusually cautious in their comments since the verdict was announced. Former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, the leader of the center-right True Path Party (DYP) warned the country's leaders in parliament on Tuesday that if the sentence is not carried out, the nation will ask them to account for their actions. Her warning seems mild by the standards of Turkish politics and almost appears to concede that Ocalan will not be executed.

At the heart of the matter is Turkey's political future and the fate of the country's large Kurdish population.

For many Kurds, regardless of whether they perceive themselves as Turks first and Kurds second or Kurds first and Turks second, Ocalan is their leader -- especially since his capture in February. However, he appears to be their leader due to the lack of any other figure.

Turkey's Kurds may number as many as one quarter of the country's population of 62 million. No accurate census figure on the number of Kurds has been available for nearly four decades.

Turkey's Kemalist political system bars the existence of political parties on national or religious bases, insisting that Turkey is a secular society where all citizens are Turks and the only language of citizens may be educated in is Turkish. As a result, Ankara has repeatedly banned ethnic Kurdish parties as well as pro-Islamist parties. The same security court that condemned Ocalan has been holding hearings for the past two years on whether to ban the pro-Kurdish HADEP party due to its alleged links with the PKK. Ocalan established the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978 as a clandestine Marxist group. Six years later, the PKK staged its first attacks in southeastern Turkey, killing two soldiers.

Ankara instituted emergency rule in the region in 1987. An officially sponsored resettlement scheme intended to concentrate the rural population in secure areas resulted in depopulating Kurdish villages and mass migration of millions Kurds to cities across Turkey, swelling the populations of Diyarbakir, Adana, Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul.

In 1991, Turkish President Turgut Ozal, whose mother was Kurdish, permitted the legalization of the Kurdish language. Two years later, Ocalan, from his exile in Syria, declared a unilateral cease-fire, renounced the goal of a separate Kurdish state and opened a secret dialogue with Turkish leaders. But two events soon destroyed any chance of a reconciliation -- the sudden death of Ozal one month later and the execution by PKK insurgents the following month (May 1993) of 33 unarmed, Turkish soldiers. That execution was allegedly on the orders of PKK rogue commander Semdin Sakik, whom Turkish forces captured last year in northern Iraq. Fighting resumed six years ago and to date has cost some 30,000 lives, the overwhelming majority of the dead being PKK insurgents in a war where the PKK generally fights to the death and the Turkish security forces take no prisoners.

Most of the Turkish media and public opinion are demanding Ocalan's death sentence be carried out. The centrist mass daily Hurriyet commented today, "is it possible for a nation that executed a number of its sultans and hanged its own prime minister in the republican era to let off a murderer who has killed our children?" Another mass circulation daily, Sabah, declared June 30 as a holiday and showed a hangman's noose alongside a picture of Ocalan.

Nevertheless, several liberal Turkish dailies say executing Ocalan would be counterproductive.

A commentary in Radikal warns Turks should not sacrifice their long-term aims for a convicted criminal. And another commentary in Radikal says "the thirst for cheap revenge" and execution are not the solution. The author, Perihan Magden, asks, "what would we lose if we kept Ocalan in jail in solitary confinement?" She calls for change, noting that a majority of Turkey's Kurdish population in her words, "want to live on this land with their own identity, language, culture and traditions".

Milliyet says although Ocalan deserves capital punishment, "the criteria for deciding whether to execute him should be 'Turkey's interests'."