The death sentence Turkey handed down to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has been a stumbling block in Turkish-EU relations since it was imposed more than six months ago. Last night, the Turkish governing coalition parties decided to postpone hanging Ocalan, to allow his appeal to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele takes a look at Ocalan's chances.
Prague, 13 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Turkey's three ruling coalition parties (Prime Minister and Democratic Left party leader Bulent Ecevit, Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli, and Motherland Party leader Mesut Yilmaz) reached the agreement last night after more than seven hours of discussions.
The European Court of Human Rights in November called for postponing Ocalan's execution pending the court's ruling. The court may take up to two years to rule on Ocalan's appeal that the death penalty violates European law.
A special court convicted Ocalan of treason and sentenced him last June to death by hanging. Two weeks ago, Turkey's chief prosecutor rejected Ocalan's final appeal.
Turkish law requires that for a death sentence to be carried out, parliament must give its approval. President Suleyman Demirel must also give his consent. If the president vetoes a parliamentary decision, parliament can override the veto in a second vote.
Prime Minister Ecevit says he will not send Ocalan's file to parliament for debate until, as he puts it, "the process based on our constitution and our international obligations is concluded."
But in announcing the decision to delay forwarding Ocalan's file to parliament, Ecevit delivered a warning to Ocalan's insurgent movement, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). He said any attempt by the PKK to take advantage of the delay and renew hostilities against what he terms "the paramount interests of the Turkish state and nation" would result in the postponement being cut short and Ocalan being executed.
"The party leaders have reached a unity of views that in the event an assessment is made that there are attempts to use this decision, which they have adopted with respect for the law, against the paramount interests of the Turkish state and nation, then the process of postponement will be cut short and an immediate transition will be made to carry out the death sentence."
Ecevit says the party leaders have not agreed to postpone the issue indefinitely.
The decision to delay comes one month after EU leaders, at a summit in Helsinki, made Turkey a candidate for membership but insisted Turkey introduce reforms in the areas of democracy, human rights and the economy before talks can start.
The EU's executive body, the European Commission, today welcomed Ankara's decision to delay Ocalan's execution. A spokesman said the European Commission assumes Turkey will not carry out the death sentence on Ocalan in the future.
In a sign of the shift in domestic views on Ocalan's fate, the Turkish news media largely responded today with satisfaction to Ecevit's announcement. A commentary in the mass circulation daily "Hurriyet" says the coalition's decision is a "serious warning to the PKK and to Europe" that the price of any lack of moderation will be Ocalan's life. The paper terms the decision a "strategic trump card to discourage the PKK from violence." But a commentary in the liberal daily "Radikal" says suspending Ocalan's execution is not enough. The paper says the death penalty should be abolished.
The death penalty has not been carried out in Turkey for some 14 years, and Ecevit opposes it as a matter of principle. Last week he said Ocalan is no longer a threat and he warned that executing him could damage Turkey at home and abroad.
The main advocate of executing the Kurdish rebel leader is the right-wing populist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a member of the ruling coalition for the last seven months. MHP leader Bahceli appears to have overruled his rank and file (regular party members) in agreeing with Ecevit and Yilmaz for a stay of execution. Ecevit's strong words to the PKK appear to be an attempt to placate MHP and its grassroots supporters. Bahceli declined to answer reporters' questions last night after the talks.
Motherland chairman Yilmaz, a former prime minister, last week indicated that Turkey cannot join the EU until it has come to terms with its Kurdish minority. In his words, "the road to the EU leads through Diyarbakir" -- a reference to the largest mainly Kurdish city in eastern Anatolia.
In a related indication of Ankara's increasing readiness to take a more tolerant attitude toward Turkey's Kurds, Foreign Minister Ismael Cem said last month that every citizen in Turkey should be able to speak his own mother tongue in every television broadcast. Just as significantly, Turkey's state prosecutor last week ruled that Cem did not violate the law by suggesting that a ban on Kurdish language broadcasts could be relaxed. Turkish nationalists say granting cultural rights to the country's estimated 12 million Kurds would amount to giving concessions to the PKK fighters for autonomy.
While Ecevit, Yilmaz and Bahceli were meeting yesterday, hundreds of MHP supporters gathered nearby for the funeral of soldiers killed last Sunday in clashes with Kurdish insurgents who have split from the PKK. A crowd of some 100 relatives of the slain soldiers marched toward the prime minister's office where the coalition talks were taking place and chanted "Don't bargain with our martyrs." They demanded the government resign.
For years, the government has accused Ocalan of being responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 people in the last 15 years of fighting, mainly in southeastern Anatolia. Now the government faces the difficult task of persuading parliament and society at large that n-o-t executing Ocalan would be in Turkey's best interests.
Although Ecevit has won the nationalists' tacit support, he must still persuade his traditional foes, the Islamists who make up the country's largest bloc of voters. The Islamist newspaper "Milli Gazete" today raged: "Who will pay the price for the blood that has been spilled? Terror: 1, Justice: 0."