Verdict in Kurd case strains Turkey's ties with Europe

Abdullah Ocalan is sentenced to death. Many Europeans oppose the death

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the presiding judge at Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan's trial signed the death verdict June 28, he pointedly did not break the pen - a traditional symbol of a Turkish judge's regret at issuing a death sentence.

But Turkey's "trial of the century," which tried Mr. Ocalan for leading a 15-year fight for Kurdish autonomy that left 30,000 dead, is causing significant reckoning within the secular state. Much is at stake for Turkey, the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance, as it looks toward Europe and the West to define its future.

Turkey is still waiting to join the European Union, which would bolster Turkey's standing with the West and be a boon to its economy. After languishing for years, the application was put on hold in late 1997 - while several other countries were put on a fast-track admission process.

Recommended: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.

The EU has cited allegations of widespread human rights abuses - many of which have stemmed from the Kurdish conflict - as a key reason for denying Turkey admission.

Now, Turkey has not only convicted a Kurdish leader but has sentenced him to death - a penalty that has not been carried out in Turkey since 1984. Since Europeans tend to oppose the death penalty, Turkey's use of it may cause damage to its relations with Europe.

"Turkey now has to make a decision.... What kind of country will we be 10 or 20 years from now?" writes columnist Ismet Berkan in Istanbul's liberal daily Radikal. "If Turkey wants to stay a part of the democratic world, it has to accept that Kurds live in the country, and respect their desire to preserve their identity.... Hanging Apo [Ocalan] will make it harder to achieve this."

Ocalan has warned that if he is executed, violence will break out in Turkey, and his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has said it will resort to "total war." Prior to the verdict, security was stepped up in Turkey and in capitals across Europe, where in February violent Kurdish protest broke out after Ocalan's capture by Turkish agents in Kenya.

"Opinion is divided," says Seyfi Tashan, the head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. "On one side is satisfying the vengeance of thousands of people whose sons died. But the Europeans are averse to the death penalty. It will be very difficult to balance the public desire with the interests of the Turkish state."

"Turkey needs time to think on it, and if it is certain that by hanging him there will be a result, so he will hang," says Metehan Demir, the diplomatic and defense correspondent in Ankara for Istanbul's Hurriyet newspaper. "But that is the hardest question to answer, because the PKK is made up of many groups - it's like a cluster bomb made up of 648 little bomblets."

Turkey steadfastly rejects that it has any "Kurdish problem" at all. For years the distinct ethnic Kurds were called "mountain Turks," and cultural practices such as using the Kurdish language were illegal and punished. Instead, the authorities consider the violent acts carried out by Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast to be a "terrorist problem."

During his trial, Ocalan blamed harsh Turkish laws for spawning the PKK in 1978, and then for its taking up arms in 1984. "These kinds of laws give birth to rebellion and anarchy," he said. The language ban - now eased - "provokes this revolt."

Some say that in the effort to bring Ocalan to justice, the larger issue of how to deal with Kurdish discontent - especially in the chronically poor, largely Kurdish southeast of the country - is being neglected. Large investment plans have been discussed for years and put forward again, but cultural reforms are a sensitive topic.

"There has not really been a soul searching," says a Western diplomat in Ankara. "There has been no suggestion of a political initiative, and no public suggestion that the problem is anything more than economic."

Instead of defending himself against the charges brought against him, Ocalan pleaded for his life. In remarks that smacked of betrayal to many of his militant followers, he seemed to cave in on fundamental points. He condemned the war and offered to act as a peacemaker.

But Ocalan's quick conversion from Marxist guerrilla chief to helpful democrat was unconvincing to many, including the judges.

Many steps still remain before the rebel leader would sit on death row. An appeals court will examine the case, and if the verdict is upheld, the judicial proceedings will turn political: Parliament and President Suleyman Demirel must sign off on the verdict.

* Ben Holland contributed to this report from Istanbul, Turkey.

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