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Turkish Court Sentences Kurdish Rebel Chief to Death

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Turkish court on Tuesday sentenced Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan to death for leading a separatist insurgency against the government.

Condemning Ocalan to the gallows, Judge Turgut Okyay said the rebel leader was responsible for the slayings of “thousands of innocent people . . . babies, children, women or the elderly.”

Ocalan showed little emotion while listening to the sentence, which had been expected. But relatives of Turkish soldiers slain by rebels of his outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, burst into the national anthem. Seconds later, Ocalan waved to spectators before being led from his bulletproof glass cubicle in the courtroom on the prison island of Imrali, southwest of Istanbul.

In addition to treason charges related to his secessionist campaign, Ocalan faced charges ranging from running massive drug trafficking and extortion rackets to ordering the deaths of thousands of unarmed civilians, including the families of Kurdish militia fighting on the side of the Turkish state.

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Ocalan’s lawyers confirmed Tuesday that they will appeal the verdict to Turkey’s high court, a process that could take months. Should the high court uphold the verdict, as is widely expected, it is up to President Suleyman Demirel and, ultimately, the Turkish parliament to approve the death sentence for Ocalan before it can be carried out.

Verdict Brings Subdued Protests

Tuesday’s verdict brought only subdued protests in Europe, which was rocked by violent Kurdish demonstrations after Ocalan’s capture in February. Kurds gathered in Paris; Strasbourg, France; Rome; and other cities to decry the death sentence, and about 2,000 Kurds demonstrated peacefully in central Moscow.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and Israeli governments ordered their embassies and consulates to step up security in anticipation of possible violence, and the U.S. temporarily closed its consulates in the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Adana. During the February protests, guards at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin shot to death four Kurds who the Israelis claimed were storming the building.

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European governments were quick to criticize or oppose the death sentence. Only Switzerland may have been forthright about why: A Swiss government communique expressed fears of “a new spiral of violence as much in Turkey as in the rest of Europe.”

“Whatever Ocalan’s faults were, sentencing him to death will be felt by the Kurdish people as an insult, a provocation,” Jack Lang, Socialist chairman of the French Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, noted in a statement.

An official for the British government quickly said it will pressure Turkey to commute Ocalan’s sentence to life imprisonment.

Turkey’s Bid to Join EU May Be at Risk

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West European officials also warned Turkey that its quest to join the prosperous European Union would be badly compromised if Ocalan was hanged. The EU has banned capital punishment.

“All this threatens to distance Turkey from Europe,” Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema said while attending an EU-Latin America summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Mary Robinson, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, expressed concern Tuesday about the fairness of the legal proceedings. She noted that, in addition to Ocalan’s being detained incommunicado for 10 days before the trial, hooded military personnel attended his meetings with attorneys and the lawyers were repeatedly threatened and harassed.

In Washington, however, the Clinton administration showed little sympathy for Ocalan, whom the United States has long considered a terrorist. In contrast to its European allies, the U.S. government did not suggest that Turkey should forgo imposing the death penalty, which is still used in the United States.

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Turkey’s 12 million Kurds make up about one-fifth of the nation’s population and dominate in the impoverished southeast. Ocalan’s PKK has led a 15-year rebellion seeking independence or autonomy for the Kurdish people.

Until his dramatic capture more than four months ago in Kenya by Turkish special agents acting in part on a tip from U.S. intelligence sources, Ocalan was Turkey’s most wanted man. His arrest followed a four-month odyssey in which he unsuccessfully sought asylum from various European countries after being forced to leave his longtime base in Syria.

Although there have been no executions in Turkey since 1984, there has been strong public pressure on the parliament and president to ratify Ocalan’s death sentence.

The popular clamor was blunted somewhat, however, by Ocalan’s calls throughout his trial that his life be spared so “I may serve the Turkish state” and “help promote peace and brotherhood between Turks and Kurds.”

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Ocalan apologized to the families of PKK victims, described his own insurrection as “a mistake masterminded by Western powers led by Britain” and accused his own forces of disobeying his orders by attacking civilians.

Ocalan’s rejection during his trial of Kurdish independence or even autonomy as “unrealistic given the realities of Turkey” and his description of the Kurds as a “tribe within the Turkish nation” shocked even some of his most loyal followers.

“His performance has disgraced us, though we dare not say so in public,” said Remziye Kok, a Kurdish teacher here in this southeastern Turkish city.

In a telling sign of the public debate that is already emerging over just what to do with the man Turkey blames for taking the lives of more than 30,000 people, Judge Okyay on Tuesday told journalists: “Personally, in general, I’m opposed to carrying out the death penalty.” Turkey’s left-wing prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, has expressed similar views and has proposed either a full or partial amnesty for PKK rebels.

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“Let there be no mistake,” wrote Ismet Berkan, a leading columnist for the liberal daily Radikal, “the political decision to be made with regard to Ocalan will influence all other decisions made with regard to Turkey’s future.”

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Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Paris, Norman Kempster in Washington, John J. Goldman at the United Nations and Maura Reynolds in Moscow contributed to this report.


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