To no one’s surprise, a Turkish court earlier this week found Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan guilty of murder and treason and sentenced him to hang. The 14-year war waged by Kurdish separatists has claimed more than 30,000 lives; the measures taken by the Turkish government to combat the insurgency have blackened its image and pose the chief obstacle to the country’s integration into Europe. The Ocalan proceedings have been a trial for both the guerrilla leader and the Turkish judicial system. Neither is over.
Mr. Ocalan’s guilt is not contested. He conceded that lives were lost during the bloody separatist campaign waged by his organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but denied that he is guilty of treason. During the trial he renounced the separatist war and offered to help forge a peace deal. The depth of his commitment to peace can be questioned: In the next breath, he threatened that his death would unleash terrorist acts across the country.
The court’s decision notwithstanding, capital punishment is no certainty. The sentence will be appealed to the country’s supreme court. If the death penalty is confirmed, it must then be ratified by the Parliament and the president. That process could take up to 18 months. Public sentiment is running in favor of the death penalty, but Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984.
Mr. Ocalan has other avenues of appeal. His lawyers have said that they will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. They will challenge the ruling on two counts. First, that the judicial proceedings were tainted. Mr. Ocalan was held incommunicado for 10 days after his arrest and hooded military personnel were present at all his meetings with his attorneys. Second, they will attack the validity of the death penalty itself. That argument will receive a favorable reception from the court: It opposes capital punishment. His lawyers will also note Turkey’s membership in the Council of Europe: One of the main conditions for joining the group is abolition of the death penalty.
The most important forum may be the court of international opinion, however. European nations have condemned the death sentence and warned that the ruling threatens to distance Turkey from Europe. Turkey hopes to join the European Union, and flouting public opinion is no way to make progress on its bid for membership. (Turkey’s interest has flagged somewhat in the wake of last year’s gratuitously rude rejection of Ankara’s application, but membership still has considerable appeal.)
European nations are concerned about a resumption of violence. Although the PKK has warned of a new round of attacks if Mr. Ocalan is put to death, the court ruling has been met with only peaceful demonstrations. When Mr. Ocalan was arrested in February, the Kurdish protests quickly turned violent; The universal condemnation that followed may have convinced the PKK leaders that a similar response would only inflict more damage to their cause.
There is another possible explanation for the calm: Mr. Ocalan may no longer represent the Kurdish movement. Mr. Ocalan was an authoritarian Marxist leader who brooked no dissent; his rule divided the PKK and alienated many Kurds. During his trial he claimed that he was not responsible for some of the acts of violence perpetrated in his name, an assertion that acknowledges splits in the movement and undercuts his supposed ability to bring the Kurds to the negotiating table. Moreover, his behavior during the trial antagonized many of his former supporters.
There are some 13 million Kurds in Turkey, most of whom live in the impoverished southeast part of the country. Kurdish culture has been under siege by a secular Turkish nationalism, but by no means do the Kurds unanimously reject the Turkish state. The civil war has done as much harm to Kurdish life as any policy of the Turkish government.
Mr. Ocalan has few defenders; That does not give the Turkish government the right to take his life, however. The death penalty will solve nothing — it will make many things worse. Commuting Mr. Ocalan’s sentence will signal Turkey’s resolve to take the initiative in dealing with its Kurdish citizens as well as in its relations with Europe. Leniency is always difficult in these highly emotional circumstances, but keeping Mr. Ocalan alive better serves the Turkish government’s purposes. The cycle of violence must be broken and Ankara now has the chance to just that.
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