Turkey's revenge is not so simple

The death sentence on the guerrilla Abdullah Ocalan has given Kurdistan its greatest hope of change yet
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The Independent Online
omething extraordinary is happening in Turkey. It started with the media. For months, newspapers and television have been leading the national campaign to hang the Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The public has been whipped into a vengeful fury by endless images of the "mothers of the martyrs": relatives of soldiers killed by Ocalan's rebels, grieving at their sons' gravesides, or clutching photographs of them in military uniform. "The baby-killer", the headlines have read, "Time to give account".

Then, within days of the news that Ocalan had been sentenced to death last week, the papers started to ask for the first time if it was such a good idea to hang him after all.

Abdullah Ocalan is a figure of loathing for most here, where he is blamed for the deaths of all 30,000 people killed in the bloody 14-year conflict between his Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security forces, and Turks greeted the verdict with tears of joy and dancing in the streets. But no sooner had the flags and home-made nooses people swung in front of the television cameras been put away than the new debate began.

The change in mood was spectacular. "Death sentence: the babies' revenge" was how the mainstream daily Hurriyet reported the verdict. A day later its headline was less certain: "Should we hang him or not?"

"Is hanging Ocalan necessary and good for Turkey?'' asked Hurriyet's chief columnist, Oktay Eksi. "What is the use of saying `Blood for blood'?" wrote Perihan Magden in the newspaper Radikal. "The important thing is not to go after cheap revenge ... not to lose more lives."

Comments like these may be commonplace enough in the West, but in the charged atmosphere that surrounds the Kurdish issue in Turkey they would have been unthinkable from mainstream columnists even a week ago. The new debate is being led not by the maverick journalists who routinely risk imprisonment under the country's fearsome anti-terror law by attacking state policy on the Kurds, but by those known to be closest to the state.

Nobody is sure how it began. But suspicions are being voiced that it may have been set in motion by the authorities themselves, in an effort to prepare public opinion for the disappointment of Ocalan's life being spared.

Hanging the rebel is fraught with problems for Turkey. The PKK has threatened a huge increase in violence if its leader is executed, and provided grim evidence of its intentions with a spate of attacks last week. Gunmen burst into a coffee house in the town of Elazig, a Turkish nationalist stronghold, and shot dead four people. Three people were injured when a bomb went off in Istanbul, and police seized explosives in the city's restive Kurdish shanty towns, arresting two people suspected of planning further bombings.

The aftermath of Ocalan's capture in February is only too fresh in people's minds, when the PKK struck into the hearts of Turkish cities with a series of bomb attacks. In the worst, 13 people died when an Istanbul shopping centre was firebombed.

Ankara has dismissed the PKK's threats, saying the guerrillas are all but defeated. But the tourism industry, a vital sector of Turkey's economy, has been severely hit by the PKK's declaration that it will target resorts. Tourists were warned to stay away: within two months of Ocalan's capture, 200,000 European holiday-makers had cancelled trips to Turkey.

A series of attacks on Turkish businesses in Germany has spurred fears that PKK violence may spread to Europe, despite claims by the organisation that it was not behind the incidents.

The Turkish military rejected Ocalan's offer from the dock to negotiate peace if his life was spared. But he proved his ability to control the guerrillas - a simple request through his lawyers was enough to stop the bombings after his capture. Some believe that Turkey could exploit Ocalan's influence over the rebels if he were allowed to live.

"Now Europe will have to listen to Turkey," one man shouted excitedly at television cameras as he celebrated last week's verdict. In fact, within hours of the sentence being passed, EU governments had unanimously condemned the verdict, and made it clear that hanging the PKK leader would jeopardise Turkey's long-held ambition of EU membership. That was the last thing Ankara wanted to hear, just weeks after Germany finally began to thaw over the idea of Turkish membership at the Cologne summit.

Turkey's handling of the trial has come under increasing fire, with even the US, a close ally suspected of complicity in the capture of Ocalan, criticising the fact that he was held incommunicado for nine days.

The Turkish government seemed unprepared for the barrage of criticism from abroad and, for three days, ministers stayed silent. "Attempts at pressure will have no influence on Turkey," the Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, eventually countered. "Nobody has a right to interfere with our domestic affairs."

With the Turkish public furious at what it sees as yet another patronising lecture on human rights from Europe, Western pressure may well backfire. Turks feel embittered by constant EU rejection, and Ocalan's claims that various European countries, notably Greece, supported the PKK angered the public.

Ocalan's lawyers have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, whose binding overturning of the sentence could be a way out of the dilemma for Turkey, allowing the government to blame the decision on Europe. Others argue that it would leave the government looking weak and fuel anti-European feeling.

Ocalan has a long walk to the gallows ahead, with a European Court decision likely to take at least six months. His case has automatically gone to a Turkish appeals court, and by law death sentences must be approved by parliament.

But the final decision will not be made in a courtroom or in parliament. In the corner of a cocktail party in Ankara, or at a meeting on some uncontroversial topic, a senior general will draw the prime minister to one side and, in a few discreet whispers, outline the military's view of the situation. Officially, any action will be taken by the government, but the government always follows the generals' advice.

Turkey has the trappings of full Western-style democracy, with its colourful, free elections. But issues of national security - the Kurdish question more than any other - are the preserve of the military.

General headquarters is believed to be divided over Ocalan's fate. Active field officers want him hanged, while the chief of staff and air force and naval commanders are said to favour imprisonment. The land army commanders are still undecided. The parliament, dominated by nationalists, and mindful of voters eager to see Ocalan hang, is thought certain to approve execution.

Whatever Ocalan's own fate, the new doubts over whether to hang him have opened the Kurdish question to debate in a way that hasn't been seen here for years.

Suddenly prominent columnists are discussing the possibility of lifting bans on Kurdish in schools and on television, as a way of ending the fighting. In his attempt from the dock to transform himself from terrorist to peacemaker, Ocalan himself claimed this would be enough for Turkey to make peace with the PKK. But he also claimed that his own life would have to be spared.

Fully recognising a Kurdish identity was discussed for the first time on television a few nights ago. "Pandora's Box is open now," says Mehmet Ali Birand, the presenter of the programme, "and genies are flying all over the place."


1949: Ocalan born in Urfa, Turkey, to peasant parents.

EARLY 1970S: attends Ankara's academy of political science. Drops out and forms band of 30 Kurdish fighters.

1980: flees to Syria and forms guerrilla army.

15 AUGUST 1984: launches first attack, massacring scores of pro-government Kurdish villagers.

OCTOBER 1998: Syrians throw Ocalan out after Ankara threatens military action. Ocalan flees first to Moscow, then to Italy.

12 NOVEMBER 1998: arrested at Rome airport; asks for asylum. Ankara requests extradition.

JANUARY 1999: Italians ask him to leave; tries to gain asylum in various countries.

1-2 FEBRUARY: Ocalan's private plane enters Greek air space and is allowed to land. Goes to Kenya, and is hidden in Greek-owned embassy. Kenya finds out and insists he leaves immediately. Ambushed by Turks en route to airport.

23 FEBRUARY: Ocalan formally charged with treason.

31 MAY: Ocalan's trial begins.

29 JUNE: Sentenced to death after being convicted of treason.