Europe has worked hard to put considerable distance between itself and the Kurds. There have been condemnations of Turkey’s violent, repressive policies toward its Kurdish minority, but sensitivities about Ankara’s strategic role in European defense and concerns about the reaction of the 1 million Kurds scattered throughout Western Europe have encouraged European Union members to shy away from any real involvement in the conflict. So when, four months ago, Italy arrested Mr. Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (a militant independence movement better known as the PKK), Germany refused to request his extradition despite the presence of several outstanding warrants, for fear that it would trigger unrest among the 2 million Turks and Kurds living in the country. Italy’s reluctance to keep Mr. Ocalan, and the unwillingness of other countries to offer him shelter, forced the guerrilla leader to take a four-month odyssey in search of safe haven.
That journey ended earlier this week, when the Kenyan government arrested Mr. Ocalan and sent him to Turkey, where he faces charges of terrorism, treason and separatism, and a possible death penalty. The circumstances of the arrest are murky. What is known is that he had been staying at the Greek Embassy in Nairobi for nearly two weeks before his arrest. His capture ended the search for Mr. Ocalan, as well as Europe’s hope of maintaining its distance from the Kurdish dispute. When the news broke, Kurdish activists staged protests across Europe, occupying embassies and consulates, and taking hostages. A number of demonstrators set themselves on fire, while others threatened self-immolation.
To the Turkish government, Mr. Ocalan is a terrorist, plain and simple. The 14-year war his group has fought with Ankara has claimed nearly 30,000 lives and blackened Turkey’s international image. The PKK has attacked Turkish targets across Europe: In addition to military, diplomatic and commercial facilities, it has also zeroed in on tourist sites. Yet, to many, if not most, of the 12 million Kurds in Turkey, Mr. Ocalan is a freedom fighter, trying to save his people from assimilation and destruction. The PKK was formed to protect and promote the Kurdish identity, but the organization quickly took up the armed struggle and began the bloody civil war that continues to this day.
The arrest of Mr. Ocalan is a turning point in the Kurdish struggle. For the Turkish government, it is the opportunity to rid itself of its most troublesome opponent. The Kurdish movement will survive Mr. Ocalan’s capture and trial, but he is its most powerful and charismatic leader. His supporters, already divided, are likely to be demoralized; it is unclear whether they will lay down their arms or take up the struggle with renewed fury.
At the same time, the arrest puts Turkey, and its Kurdish policies, under a scrutiny it has never before had to endure. Italy and Germany have urged Ankara not to execute Mr. Ocalan. Cognizant of the pressures they will face in the future, those two governments — as well as others — are unlikely to look the other way as the judicial process gets under way. And even though he will be tried before a special state security court, the intense controversy that has been generated by the case means that Turkey will not be able to shield itself from international scrutiny.
The trial will give Mr. Ocalan the platform he has demanded to make the case for his people. While in Italian custody, he offered to go before an international tribunal if he could put Turkish policies in the dock beside him. For precisely that reason, Turkey has demanded that only it could try him.
Neither Turkey, nor the Kurds, need a martyr. They need an end to the bloodshed and the poverty and deprivation it has created. The 25 million Kurds scattered across the Middle East and Europe want a homeland — Kurdistan — but they will not get it. No nation is willing to accept the potential consequences of an attempt to redraw the map of the region. That does not mean that Turkey has a free hand to try to eradicate the Kurdish identity, however. Instead, there has never been a better moment for Ankara to initiate a real peace offensive with its Kurdish minority.
With Mr. Ocalan in custody, it will be acting from a position of strength, not weakness. With the eyes of the world upon it, Ankara will have no better opportunity to show that it is a humane, just government, prepared to embrace the standards of human rights and civil liberties that is required of a future EU member state. If Mr. Ocalan is in the dock, so is Turkey. There is opportunity and peril for both in the days ahead.
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