London, 7 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The German Minister for Europe says Ankara's decision on whether or not to carry out the death sentence against Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan could affect its chances of opening a dialogue on membership with the EU.
Guenter Verheugen was commenting on the judgment by a Turkish court to sentence Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), to death by hanging on charges of separatism. Verheugen was speaking in London earlier this week, where he gave an address before the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Ankara blames Ocalan for leading the PKK in a 14-year war for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey in which tens of thousands have died.
Before the death sentence can be carried out, it must be approved by an appeals court and then by Turkey's parliament and president. Turkey is under pressure from the EU and Russia not to carry out the sentence.
Verheugen said the court verdict will not make things "any easier" at the next European Council summit in Helsinki later his year, which will likely consider Turkey-EU relations.
"I must say after the sentencing of Ocalan, matters are hardly going to get any easier. We should try to make sure that Turkey as a country with probably the highest strategic importance in that part of Europe is firmly anchored in the family of west European democratic nations. It must be strategic priority number one."
The EU has repeatedly urged Turkey to improve its human rights record, citing it as an obstacle to Ankara's efforts to forge closer ties with the union, or to eventually become a member.
Most Turkish media and public opinion are demanding the death sentence should be carried out. But some Turkish commentators say carrying out the verdict would cause new tensions and violence and the sentence, if implemented, would isolate Turkey in the modern world.
Verheugen said the EU should tell Ankara that the case could have either a negative or positive impact on Turkey's hopes of starting a dialogue with the EU on possible eventual membership:
"Therefore, it is very important to make it clear to the Turkish government that the question of how it will deal with the Ocalan sentence can be useful or can be the contrary for the process we have started. The Balkans conflict has again sharpened our awareness that there is no alternative to enlargement and closer integration in Europe."
Political analysts say 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.
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.