EU-bound Turkey might lift Ocalan death sentence

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The Independent Online
ABDULLAH OCALAN, the rebel Kurdish leader, is one of the first beneficiaries of Turkey's new status as an applicant for EU membership, which has brought indications that his life will be spared.

In deference to national sensitivities, there was no mention of his death sentence in any document or communique at the weekend's Helsinki summit, but European diplomats are convinced there will now be no swift move to execute Ocalan.

Behind the scenes Turkey has given unofficial assurances that an execution will not be carried out before the case goes before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the judicial body of the Council of Europe, which is likely to conclude that Ocalan should not die despite his conviction for leading the Kurdish fight for independence. "All voices seem to be saying that nothing is going to be done in the direction of execution before we have heard what the court is going to say," said one EU diplomat.

In Helsinki on Saturday the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, would address the issue only in general terms, saying his political party was trying to abolish capital punishment, although it is reliant on coalition partners for support. He added: "We realise there is no capital punishment in EU countries and I am hopeful that politicians will take note of this."

The Ocalan case has featured prominently in discussions with the government in Ankara. Javier Solana, European's new foreign-policy supremo, who is credited with clinching the deal on Turkey's admission on Friday night, has raised the issue publicly and privately.

As a candidate country Turkey will have to match the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which stress a commitment to human rights seemingly incompatible with the death penalty.

Two weeks ago Ocalan's fate was the subject of discussions with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ismail Cem, and on Saturday in Helsinki Mr Solana argued that "it will be difficult to have a member of the European family which does not have the same respect for life".

The deal that brought Ankara candidate status, struck after a visit to Ankara by Mr Solana and Gunther Verheugen, the European commissioner for enlargement, was a considerable diplomatic triumph for the EU and may bring other benefits.

British diplomats believe it has kept alive talks in New York over a political settlement of the dispute over Cyprus, which was partitioned after an invasion of the northern part of the island by Turkish troops in 1974.

Turkey's new status has also helped to ease some of the tension between it and the EU over plans to create a European defence capability. At the last meeting of Nato ministers the Turkish delegation held up agreement of the final communique for several hours because of concerns over the role of Nato countries not in the EU.

Diplomats are hopeful that this issue can be defused, although Mr Ecevit told journalists on Saturday that Europe's defence ambitions remain a significant difficulty for Turkey.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is drawing up plans to help Ankara with financial assistance to help to prepare its membership. Mr Ecevit said his country would confound expectations that it would take many years to meet the qualifications for entry, but refused to give a timescale.

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