An article in yesterday's editions misstated the location of the city of Strasbourg. It is in France. (Published 11/27/99)
The Turkish appeals court today upheld a death sentence imposed on Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, a ruling that has far-reaching implications for Turkey's efforts to be the first Muslim country to join the European Union.
As news of the decision became known, hundreds of relatives of Turkish soldiers slain in the 15-year armed campaign waged by Ocalan's outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, embraced one another and chanted "Hang him! Hang him!" outside the court building in central Ankara.
But at the tall gray building housing the prime minister's office just a few blocks away, Turkish leaders somberly pondered their next move.
Under Turkish law, it is now up to parliament to approve the death sentence before it can be carried out. Opinion in the 550-member legislature is divided on whether to hang the man Turkey blames for the deaths of more than 30,000 of its citizens.
Analysts said the ruling, upholding the sentence handed down on a treason conviction in June, could not have come at a worse time.
The once obscure rebel chief has been the focus of international attention ever since his dramatic capture by Turkish special agents in Nairobi, Kenya, in February. Ocalan, 51, has remained in solitary confinement off the coast of Istanbul on a prison island, where he was tried in the presence of Western observers.
"Turkey is at a crucial turning point," said Hashim Hashimi, a Kurdish lawmaker from the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. "Ocalan's fate will determine whether Turkey becomes a fully fledged Western-style democracy, or remains a second-rate imitation."
European leaders, who are set to endorse Turkey's candidacy for the EU when they meet in Helsinki next month, have told Turkey that if Ocalan is hanged, its chances of joining the club will disappear.
Shortly after the decision was announced, EU spokesman Jean Christophe Filori said: "This is a disappointment." He added, "We would like to remind Turkey, like other candidate countries, that we expect them to withdraw the death penalty if they are to become member states." Ocalan's defense team announced it will take his case before the Strasbourg, Austria-based European Court of Human Rights now that the domestic legal process has been exhausted. Western diplomats have suggested a face-saving option for the Ankara government would be to await the court's ruling.
Turkish leaders appeared eager to embrace the idea. "We will have to consider the court's decision," said Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who has publicly stated his deep aversion to capital punishment.
The European court could take two years to deliver an opinion, giving Turkey enough time abolish the death penalty without appearing to be doing so just for Ocalan's sake.
Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk and human rights minister Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik have confirmed they are working on legislation to lift the death penalty, which has not been carried out here since 1984 in line with Turkey's efforts to join the EU. Members of Turkey's main opposition group, the Islam-based Virtue Party, have said they will back the change.
But members of the Nationalist Action Party, key allies in Ecevit's tripartite coalition, remain stiffly opposed. The ultranationalist group finished a surprising second during parliamentary elections in April. One of its campaign slogans was "Hang Ocalan."
Kemal Bilgic, a lawyer who visited Ocalan on Imrali Island today, said his client was in good spirits. "The esteemed chairman heard the news [of the verdict] over the transistor radio and was not surprised," he said. "He said that he would not be deterred from pursuing his peace mission and sounded extremely calm."
If Ocalan's life is spared, his own actions since his arrest will have played a crucial, if not determining, role in slaking the Turkish public's desire for revenge, commentators here said. When Ocalan first appeared in court, even his lawyers appeared dumbstruck when he described the Kurdish uprising as "a mistake" and renounced his demands for Kurdish independence, saying lifting bans on education and broadcasting in the Kurdish language would more than satisfy the Kurds--who make up a fifth of Turkey's 60 million people.
Then Ocalan in September ordered his fighters to withdraw from Turkey, abandon their armed struggle and carry their battle to the diplomatic domain. Sixteen PKK officials have handed themselves over to Turkish authorities in response to their leader's call. Ocalan's brother Osman, a key member of the PKK command council based in the mountains dividing Iraq from Iran, warned today, however, that if Turkey fails to respond soon to the PKK overtures, the fighting could resume.