Reprieve for Ocalan

Despite divided public opinion and internal discord within the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Turkey decided on Jan. 12 to delay the execution of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan until the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issues a ruling on the case. That the postponement is not unconditional, says Istanbul’s liberal Radikal (Jan. 13), was stressed by the coalition leaders, who stated that if the CHR delays the decision, Ocalan’s case will be put to a vote in parliament.

In the tense period leading up to the decision, the right-wing coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MCP), felt pressured to tone down its previously harsh stance on Ocalan, according to Istanbul’s liberal Cumhuriyet (Jan. 5). An MCP leader who defended the party’s position to send the case to parliament declared, “This is not an ordinary death sentence… Someone who has cut off the lifeblood of 30,000 people was tried and sentenced.…We must go down this road. We do not need a new map.”

On Jan. 6, Cumhuriyet reported disagreement within the Virtue and True Path parties. Much of the dissent to party leaders’ position—that the case be presented to parliamentary vote rather than be postponed until the European court’s decision—came from representatives of the eastern and southeastern regions, said the paper. Those areas are most affected by the conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish groups. Until the last minute, only two of the major parties (Ecevit’s center-leftist Democratic Left Party and the Motherland Party) supported the stay of execution. 

In an impassioned statement to Istanbul’s Islamist Yeni Safak (Jan. 6), Supreme Court of Appeals president Sami Selcuk equated the importance of the European Human Rights Agreement with the Turkish National Security Court. He added, “Law does not have a nationality.” Selcuk asserted that, unless it follows the ECHR’s ruling, Turkey will lose its  standing in the world.

Commentators in the main newspapers took a strong stance against Ocalan’s execution and the death pen-alty in general in the context of Turkey’s recently accepted application for full membership in the European Union (EU) and its efforts to democratize in a Western fashion.

Observing that there have been no hangings in Turkey for the last 15 years, columnists called for the elimination of the death penalty. Referring to past executions of political leaders, Ertugrul Ozkok wrote in the independent Hurriyet (Jan. 5), “We’ve tried to achieve happiness and peace by hanging. We were not successful. Can we not try for once without hanging? Would we lose so much?”

Cheering the decision to stay the execution, Murat Yetkin suggested in Radikal (Jan. 13) that “the government has both shown the European Union its resolve to live like Europeans and taken the proper stance toward internal sensitivities around Ocalan.” Now, offered Yet-kin, “Ocalan is no longer a weapon aimed at Ankara, but a weapon in Ankara’s hands.”

Quoting Wolfgang Peukert of the ECHR, who said, “With this decision, Turkey has shown not its weakness but its strength,” Yetkin urged that as part of its democratization process, Turkey must remove those articles in its penal code and constitution that do not conform to Western democratic standards.

Another, more sober Radikal columnist, Mehmet Yilmaz, pointed to the fundamental contradiction between the majority of the parties, which both support full membership in the European Union and opposed delaying until the European court’s decision. Like other observers, Yilmaz wrote on Jan. 13 that when no major party opposes EU membership, Turkey, having chosen to link its destiny with Europe’s since the 19th century, cannot be the only country with the death penalty while European nations eliminate it.

Yilmaz asked what purpose this delay serves: “Is it assumed that the execution can take place without problems after the ECHR ruling and that this would not affect Turkish-European Union relations?” The solution, he asserted, is not to put the death sentence on hold but to  eliminate it and replace it with life imprisonment.