Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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A costly hanging

By Gareth Jenkins

The Turkish High Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the death penalty against Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The sentence must now be ratified by parliament and President Suleyman Demirel before it can be carried out. Most Turks want Ocalan to hang, but the EU has already warned that his execution would effectively spell the end to Turkish hopes of membership.

Ocalan's lawyers have announced that they will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The Turkish government is expected to wait for the court to make a ruling -- a process that could take over a year -- before deciding whether to submit Ocalan's sentence to parliament for ratification.

Ocalan was sentenced to death on 29 June this year after being found guilty of treason and mass murder during the PKK's 14-year armed campaign for independence for Turkey's Kurdish minority.

The High Court of Appeals ruling came as no surprise, but it nevertheless triggered celebrations outside the courtroom in Ankara where relatives of some of the Turkish soldiers killed by the PKK burst into applause and began chanting patriotic slogans. Many then marched off to pay their respects at the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 and himself suppressed several Kurdish rebellions during the early years of the republic. But a small group broke away to ransack the Ankara branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association, which nationalist Turks suspect of being sympathetic to the PKK, and beat up the association's chairman Husnu Ondul.

"This will not prevent us from continuing with our work to advance human rights in Turkey," a visibly shaken Ondul told Turkish television.

The incident has again demonstrated that, despite the emotional trauma of two devastating earthquakes, for many Turks, Ocalan's death sentence remains a highly emotive issue. Most Turks hold Ocalan personally, and almost solely, responsible for the more than 30,000 deaths in the war between the PKK and the security forces. Even opponents of the death penalty admit that they would find it difficult to vote against hanging Ocalan if his case ever comes to parliament.

"Most of the members of parliament want to see Ocalan executed," said a member of Motherland Party, the junior partner in the tripartite coalition government. "But even someone like me, who is one of the minority who are opposed to hanging Ocalan and capital punishment in general, would probably have to vote to ratify the death sentence if it ever comes to parliament. The Turkish public would never forgive us otherwise."

But Turkish politicians are also aware that executing Ocalan could severely damage Turkey's international relations, particularly with Europe.

"The European Union has a very clear position against the death penalty," said Reijo Kempinen, the spokesman for Finland, which currently holds the EU presidency. "We hope that in this case the death penalty will not be executed."

Privately, European diplomats were more outspoken. "If Turkey hangs Ocalan, it can forget EU membership," said one. Others have questioned the timing of the Appeals Court ruling, which came just two weeks before the EU summit in Helsinki at which Turkey is hoping to be named as an official candidate for membership.

"There was no need to put the Ocalan case on the front burner at a time when member states are considering whether Turkey meets the criteria for membership," said one.

Turkey's powerful military has declared that it will not try to influence the government.

"The politicians will decide whether or not to execute Ocalan, not us," said Turkish Chief of Staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu.

"If anyone deserves to die then it is Ocalan," said a source close to the military. "But he probably won't be executed. Turkey has too much to lose internationally and the interests of the nation must come before any emotional feelings."

There are also concerns that Ocalan's execution might make him into a martyr for young Kurds and spark an upsurge in PKK violence. The Turkish military had already succeeded in militarily containing the PKK even before Ocalan was expelled from Syria in October 1998. Ocalan's capture in Kenya in February this year and his subsequent call for a cease-fire have further weakened the organisation. It is still unclear how many PKK militants will obey Ocalan and how many will continue fighting. But even those militants who have temporarily laid down their arms have vowed to resume the armed struggle if he is executed.

"We have a lot to lose if we execute Ocalan," admitted one member of parliament. "But we need Europe's help. We need to be recognised as a candidate for EU membership at the Helsinki summit to give us some incentive not to hang Ocalan. Otherwise, Ocalan is as good as dead; and parliament may not even wait for the European Court of Human Rights to make a ruling."

The Turkish High Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the death sentence against Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- The Turkish High Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld the death sentence against Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

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