Italy Turkey Once Again Trade Blows Over Ocalan

ROME (Reuters)-Italy and Turkey traded diplomatic blows on Wednesday as Rome rejected Ankara’s charges it was meddling in the case of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Turkey’s ambassador was summoned to the Italian foreign ministry after Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on Tuesday attacked the inclusion of the case in a scheduled Italian parliamentary debate. Ecevit accused Rome of "almost behaving as a supporter" of Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey warned that Italy’s public opposition to the death sentence passed on Ocalan last month amounted to interference in Turkish affairs and could harm bilateral relations.

"We desire Italian state officials to treat this subject with a realistic–rational and serious approach…and thus prevent the friendly relations between the two countries being further overshadowed," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Sermet Atacanli told a news briefing in Ankara on Wednesday.

"We cannot be expected to show understanding to statemen’s and actions that openly mean an interference in Turkey’s democracy and judicial process," Atacanli said.

But Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema–winding up a two-day parliament debate on Italy’s economic and political situation–pointedly began his closing speech with remarks on Ocalan–Turkey and the Kurds.

"I believe the manner in which the Turkish government referred to the Italian government is very serious. Our parliament has the right to deal with the Ocalan case and the ethnic Kurds who live in southeast Turkey," D’Alema told the lower house Chamber of Deputies.

"We assert our right and duty to discuss…human rights–peace and war–violence–the rights of minorities…in every country of the world–especially those which are closest to us and whose crises have a more direct influence on us," he said.

D’Alema said he had asked the current European Union president–Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen–to promote an EU initiative to persuade Turkey to quash the death sentence as a key step on the road to EU membership.

Italy’s parliament subsequently approved a motion committing the government to ask the United Nations to fight the execution.

A Turkish court sentenced Ocalan last month to hang for leading the PKK’s armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey.

The Ocalan case has soured relations between Italy and Turkey since last year when Italy refused Turkey’s requests to extradite the Kurdish rebel after he sought refuge in Rome.

Ocalan applied for asylum in Italy but left the country before a decision was reached. He was later captured in Kenya.

Despite the death penalty already handed down on Ocalan–a Rome civil court on Wednesday continued long-running hearings on whether or not Italy should grant him political asylum.

"Today numerous Italian and Turkish Kurd witnesses will testify regarding the fact that in Turkey–Kurds are not entitled to rights guaranteed by our constitution," Ocalan’s Italian lawyer Giuliano Pisapia told Reuters Television.

"Proving this in the trial is essential in order to demonstrate that Ocalan is entitled to political asylum as guaranteed by our constitution."

Meanwhile in Beirut–more than 2,000 Kurds living in Lebanon and Syria marched across Beirut on Wednesday demanding Ocalan’s release from Turkey.

"Free Ocalan. Peace for Kurdistan," the marchers chanted. They delivered a letter of protest at the headquarters of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia at the end of their march.

Tens of thousands of Kurds live in Lebanon and in Syria–where the government and population are generally sympathetic to their aspirations for an independent state.

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