Wed, 28 Jun 2000

Ocalan's fate still hanging in the air

By Christopher Wade

ANKARA (DPA): When rebel Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death by a special state security court on June 29, 1999, many Turks were overjoyed that Turkey's enemy number one was to be executed.

One year later, Ocalan's fate is unknown, as is the future of rights for Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Although capital punishment is still on the law books, Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984. The parliament has simply refused to discuss any capital punishment cases thus leaving all those sentenced to death in limbo until one of Turkey's frequent criminal amnesties came along.

With Turkey being named a candidate for membership of the European Union, however, the issue of the death penalty, as well as broader rights for Kurds, has come back onto the agenda.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has always been against the death penalty but in recent weeks has attempted to get the matter off the back burner.

Newly-elected President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has also come out in support of lifting the death penalty and last week the influential Chief of Staff Huseyin Kivrikoglu said the military didn't care either way.

All well and good except for the fact that Ecevit's coalition partners, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), say they will not vote for the measure until after Ocalan is hanged.

At the moment, Ocalan's case remains suspended at the prime minister's office awaiting a decision from the European Court of Human Rights. What happens after that is unclear.

The one thing that has definitely changed since the nation was gripped by the Ocalan trial is that the numbers of body bags being sent back to the home towns of young Turkish men conscripted into fighting Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) rebels has fallen dramatically.

Fighting in the mainly Kurdish southeast has almost come to a halt. The military now estimates that only around 500 PKK fighters are inside Turkey's borders, with another 5,000 or so in neighboring Iraq, Iran or Syria.

The top brass claims this proves the success of its no- concessions policy of destroying the PKK militarily while the PKK says it is due to Ocalan's call for an end to the fighting.

Whichever is correct, both explanations are probably somewhat true, the southeast today is a lot safer than it was a year ago.

This was acknowledged on Monday when the military-dominated National Security Council recommended that emergency rule be lifted in one of the five southeast provinces that have been under a state of emergency for 14 years.

Most observers say that the government in Ankara and authorities in the southeast have allowed Kurds to express themselves a little more since the fighting has eased.

For the first time in years, Kurds in the regional capital of Diyarbakir were allowed to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz, even if celebrations in Istanbul were banned on the grounds that the word had not been spelt correctly in Turkish.

Furthermore, municipalities run by the largest Kurdish party (HADEP) have been left to go about their business in relative peace.

But it is still illegal to broadcast or teach in Kurdish, and the situation is unlikely to change soon.

Ecevit has said that Kurdish is not a language but a dialect and the generals have recently forced the watering down of a report on what Turkey needs to do to become a member of the EU to exclude provisions for further language rights.

The government has always claimed that there is no Kurdish problem and therefore "special" rights for Kurds are not needed. It refuses to speak to the PKK or respond to Ocalan's calls, and Ecevit has refused to even meet HADEP mayors to discuss the region's problems.

The question still remains as to whether the PKK could return to try and fight the Turkish military. Ocalan today says that the war is over and all he wants is cultural rights, but a leading member of the Europe-based PKK leadership council said last week that the PKK still had the power to resume fighting if it wanted to.

The government says that true peace will come to the region only through economic development of the southeast.

With the average per capita income of people in the southeast eight times less than that in industrialized western Anatolia the government will face a long haul before places like Diyarbakir, Mardin and Hakkari are known more as economic success stories rather than the where so many young Turks and Kurds are killed.

One year after being sentenced to hang, Ocalan remains on death row on the island prison of Imrali. In many ways he is causing a bigger headache for the government than when he was running the PKK from his base in Damascus. At least then the government's response was simple -- send in the military.

The big debate about what to do with him is yet to come and it could tear the government apart. In the meantime, further cultural rights for Kurds don't even look like getting onto the parliamentary agenda.