Turkish Coalition Agrees to Delay Ocalan Hanging

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s government coalition decided on Wednesday to postpone hanging Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan until a European rights court has given its judgment on the case.

"We have decided to hold the (Ocalan) file at the prime ministry–but this period will not be indefinite," leftist Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters after seven hours of talks persuading his partners to adopt this course.

Ecevit–who personally opposes the death penalty–was flanked at a news conference by his hard-line nationalist partner Devlet Bahceli and Mesut Yilmaz–leader of the smaller center-right Motherland Party.

Bahceli swept to power in April polls pledging to hang Ocalan–seen responsible for the deaths of 30,000 people in a 15-year armed campaign for Kurdish self-rule in the southeast.

The nationalist politician declined to answer reporters’ questions as to whether differences had been fully overcome. "Our prime minister has spoken. It would not be right for us to comment," he said.

The European Court of Human Rights has asked Turkey to stay any execution while it considers Ocalan’s appeal that the death penalty breaches European law–a process which could take up to 18 months.

"When the process required under our international obligations is complete–the file will be sent swiftly to parliament," Ecevit said–adding that any Eurocourt ruling would not change the verdict itself.

The assembly’s 550 deputies would then vote on whether or not to carry out the execution. Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984.

The Ocalan issue is widely seen as the first real threat to the unity of the left-right coalition–which is credited with giving Turkey its most stable government in years.

A delay postpones a potentially divisive debate between the coalition partners that could threaten their alliance and jeopardize a three-year program of fiscal reform backed by $4 billion in IMF loans.

Veteran leftist Ecevit is mindful that any execution could seriously damage Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. But he warned that the period of delay would end if it was "used by the terrorist organization or its supporters to harm Turkey’s greater interests,."

Ecevit had been expected to use reports from the security services and the Foreign Ministry to show Bahceli at Wednesday’s talks the costs to Turkey of the execution.

The European Union has told candidate Turkey that hanging Ocalan–widely known as "Apo," would be a grave mistake.

Portugal–holder of the EU presidency–on Wednesday sent a thinly veiled warning that executing Ocalan could jeopardize Ankara’s bid to join the bloc.

"We would not be starting on the right foot in the effort to bring Turkey and the EU closer together if Turkey takes decisions which are not compatible with European principles," Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs Francisco Seixas de Costa told reporters in Paris.

Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP) says Ocalan was convicted of treason and murder by an independent court and to delay that sentence would undermine Turkish sovereignty.

In Brussels–the European Union welcomed on Thursday Turkey’s decision to postpone Ocalan’s hanging–saying it was a step in the right direction as Ankara tries to join the 15-nation bloc.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana described the decision as "a firm step in the right direction." She quoted Solana as saying it underlined EU opposition to the death penalty and was "very positively welcomed."

A spokesman for the European Commission–the EU’s executive–also hailed Wednesday’s decision by Turkey’s coalition government to put off Ocalan’s execution until a European human rights court has given its judgment on the case.

"We think it’s the right way to handle this issue. It’s in respect of democracy–human rights and the international commitmen’s of Turkey," the Commission spokesman told a daily news briefing.

The spokesman’said the Commission now assumed that the death sentence on Ocalan would not be carried out.

"We (note) the fact that the execution is not going to be carried out and we assume that in the future the execution of Mr. Ocalan is not going to be carried out. It’s good news for us."

EU leaders agreed in December that Turkey should be made a formal candidate for membership of the wealthy bloc. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit–mindful that any execution could badly damage Turkey’s bid to join–had pressed for the delay.

The EU had previously told Turkey that hanging Ocalan would be a grave mistake. Although the EU has agreed to make Turkey a candidate–it has not let it join eastern European and Mediterranean countries which are holding–or are about to start–detailed membership talks until it has carried out political and economic reforms.

"We congratulate the Turkish government on its decision…We trust its full value will be appreciated in Turkey’s rapprochement to the European Union," Council Secretary General Walter Schwimmer and the president of its parliamentary assembly–Lord Russell-Johnston–said a joint statement.

"This is a courageous decision which comforts all those who work to abolish the death penalty in Europe," they said–voicing hope that it was a first step towards abolishing the death penalty in Turkey.

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