Ocalan Sentenced to Hang; International Community Reacts to Verdict

IMRALI ISLAND–Turkey–LONDON–MOSCOW (Reuters)–A Turkish court condemned Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan to death on Tuesday for leading separatist forces in a bitter conflict that has cost 29,000 lives in almost 15 years.

Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members threatened a fresh wave of violence after the ruling–delivered in a specially built courtroom on an isolated prison island.

Germany–which fears communal strife between its two million Turks and Kurds–said it regretted the judge’s ruling but called for calm. Finland–European Union president from July 1–said the EU would oppose the death sentence.

Ocalan–50–stood with his hands folded behind his back in a bullet-proof glass box in court. He did not react when judge Turgut Okyay told him he must hang for treason and mass murder.

"(He has) murdered thousands of innocent people without regard to babies–children–women or the elderly," said Okyay–wearing a traditional black robe with high–scarlet collar.

Spectators sang the Turkish national anthem as Ocalan was led back down to his cell. The guerrilla leader’s relatives–present through the entire month–stayed away for the verdict.

Ocalan told his lawyers after the verdict that he was unperturbed by the death penalty–state-run Anatolian news agency said. "He told us he was more relaxed than we were and said he believed that this historic case would serve peace in the end," the agency quoted Mahmut Sakar as telling reporters.

"He (Ocalan) said he would not give up working for peace after the verdict," said Sakar.

Ocalan was arrested by Turkish special forces in Kenya in February after months on the run through Europe and Africa. Until then–he had directed the PKK’s fight for Kurdish self-rule from Damascus and was believed never to have visited the conflict zone in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

The PKK fought on since his capture and warned they would step up their campaign. "This means attacks on economic targets. The war will spread inside Turkey," a PKK spokeswoman’said from London.

European cities beefed up security to avoid a repeat of the angry protests by members of the Kurdish Diaspora that followed Ocalan’s arrest.

Kurds gathered on Tuesday for protests in Moscow–Paris–The Hague–and Strasbourg–home of the 41-nation Council of Europe. There were no immediate reports of violence there or in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

The sentencing was a clear rebuttal of a courtroom offer by Ocalan to end the conflict in exchange for his life. The Kurdish leader denied betraying Turkey–a fiercely nationalistic country that refuses to acknowledge a separate ethnic identity for Kurds–arguing this would lead to disintegration of the state.

"I do not accept the charge of treason," Ocalan said before sentencing. "I believe I’ve struggled for the unity of the land and a free life…I extend greetings to all."

Dressed in a brown double-breasted jacket with open neck shirt–he listened to the judge impassively–his eyes darting from side to side occasionally. He betrayed no emotion.

Although Turkish courts sometimes sentence convicts to death–no execution has been carried out since 1984.

The public mood appears at present to be strongly in favor of carrying out the execution–probably on Imrali Island–where he has been held since his capture. At Mudanya port–nearest point to Imrali–Turks celebrated the sentence–many eager to see the matter over as quickly as possible.

But Ocalan’s case must pass first to the appeals court and then to parliament for ratification.

The nationalist parliament elected in April–partly as a result of elation over the capture of Ocalan–seems certain to pass the law necessary for Turkey’s first execution since 1984.

Ocalan’s chief hope of salvation lies with the European Court of Human Rights–a body not known for swift action. An appeal to Strasbourg–even if given priority–could take anything from six to 18 months.

The case may further aggravate the poor relations between Turkey and Europe–often at odds over Ankara’s poor human rights record and treatment of the Kurds.

Turkey’s pro-Western ruling elite refuses to even discuss the Kurdish issue with the EU in anger at European rejection of Ankara’s attempts to join the bloc.

Tensions increased last year when Ocalan took refuge briefly in Italy and Greece admitted to actively aiding the rebel chief. Germany refused to press home an arrest warrant for Ocalan it had issued years before.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman’said Turkey would not heed the advice of foreigners in the Ocalan case.

‘We must await completion of the (legal) process. Beyond that–we neither have authority to interfere with the judicial rulings–nor will we accept such advice or interference from other countries," spokesman Sermet Atacanli told Reuters.

Switzerland said execution would "provoke a new spiral of violence in Turkey (and) the rest of Europe."

Governmen’s and international organizations on Tuesday swiftly denounced the death sentence Turkey imposed and his followers warned of revenge attacks if he were hanged.

European governmen’s–especially in Germany–appealed for calm but braced for violent protests by followers of Ocalan’s PKK among their Turkish immigrant communities.

Hundreds of Kurdish protesters took to the streets in a number of European cities as soon as the sentence was announced.

"This means attacks on Turkey’s economic targets. The war will spread inside Turkey," a spokeswoman for the PKK’s political arm told Reuters.

In Vienna–a PKK political spokesman’said: "This ruling will pave a new and dangerous road for the conflict…in Turkey and the whole Middle East."

German Interior Minister Otto Schily told a news conference the German government would "undertake a massive effort" to save Ocalan’s life. "The ruling is regrettable," Schily said. "But the final word hasn’t been spoken."

In an earlier written statement–Schily urged Kurds "to remain calm and not get swept up by ill-conceived actions–but instead put faith in the appeals process and the European Court for Human Rights."

Germany is home to some two million Turkish citizens–many of them Kurds. Last year Germany declined to seek Ocalan’s extradition after he was detained in Italy on an outstanding German arrest warrant.

In Rome–Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema said Turkey risked distancing itself from Europe with the sentence it had imposed. Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said Italy would appeal to the Council of Europe to try to block an eventual execution.

"This is news we did not want to hear," Dini said. "This goes against the thinking and opinion of the countries and citizens of the European Union."

Greek government spokesman Nickos Nicolaou said: "Turkey must prove that it is in line with the principles of the EU and other international bodies on justice matters."

The United States–which worked for months to help Turkey arrest Ocalan–declined immediate comment on his death sentence but declared he was an international terrorist.

"We have long believed that Ocalan is an international terrorist who should be brought to justice," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.

Russia urged Turkey on Tuesday not to hang Ocalan–saying such a move would breach its commitmen’s as a member of the Council of Europe.

"We know that although capital punishment has not been abolished by legislation in Turkey–that country has not carried out any death sentences since 1984," Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin told a news briefing.

"We hope that the high principles of humanity will not be breached in the case of Ocalan either," he said.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel took part in a pledge at the Council of Europe’s last summit in 1997 to abolish the death penalty or uphold existing moratoria on executions in the group’s 41 member nations.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov echoed Rakhmanin’s commen’s.

"We can only express our regret about the verdict," he told reporters. "Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and we hope this will be taken into account with regard to Mr. Ocalan."

Rakhmanin said Russia sought a resolution of the Kurdish problem "based on international law" with due regard for human rights and the rights of national minorities.

"Russia regards as unacceptable and firmly rejects any use of force–especially of a terrorist nature," he said–adding any settlement should respect Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Russia was one of several countries where Ocalan tried to find refuge before Turkish security forces arrested him in Kenya in February. Ocalan’s PKK once had close ties with the Soviet Union.

In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper published last week–Ocalan accused Russia–along with Italy–Greece–the United States and Britain–of having a hand in the "plot" that led to his capture.

Moscow has in the past accused the West of a double standard in its approach to the Kurdish problem–saying that NATO subjected Yugoslavia to heavy bombing over its handling of separatist Albanians while failing to criticize alliance member Turkey over the treatment of its Kurdish minority.

On Tuesday Rakhmanin urged Kurdish organizations based in Russia to refrain from violence.

After hearing of the Ocalan verdict–about 1,000 Kurds gathered beneath a statue of Lenin on Oktyabrskaya Square in central Moscow–waving Kurdish flags and banners and chanting "Turkey–terrorist." Some protesters set fire to Turkish flags.

Ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky–who speaks Turkish but regards Turkey as Russia’s main rival in the Balkans–the Caucasus and other regions–told the Kurds Moscow should support their demand for an independent Kurdistan.

"Russia’s interests lie in the creation of a Kurdistan state. And it will be created," he said.

UN human rights chief Mary Robinson noted there was concern about procedural matters during Ocalan’s trial and about the independence and impartiality of the judges who heard the case.

"In view of concerns about the lack of due process–it was particularly disquieting that it was the State Security Court that sentenced him to death," Robinson said.

Human rights group Amnesty International also questioned the fairness of Ocalan’s trial and the legality of the death sentence against him.

The Council of Europe noted the Turkish president had taken part in a pledge at the group’s last summit meeting in 1997 to abolish the death penalty or uphold existing moratoria on executions.

"We are confident that the Grand National Assembly will defend Turkey’s good record in this field," the Council said in a statement.

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