Death Sentence for Kurd Leader No Surprise

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT


Jerusalem (CNS) - Kurdish rebel leader Abdallah Ocalan was sentenced to death by a Turkish court Tuesday for his leading role in a 14-year-long separatist struggle that has cost more than 29,000 lives.

State television showed Turks in the courtroom on the Imrali prison-island off the Turkish coast breaking into song after hearing that Ocalan had been found guilty of treason and murder. Among them were family members of soldiers killed during the armed campaign.

Standing inside a bullet-proof glass cage, Ocalan, 50, showed no outward emotion as Judge Turgut Okyay described him as an extremely dangerous individual, who had demonstrated little regard for the lives of women, children or the elderly during the struggle for Kurdish self-rule in southeast Turkey.

The head of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) then waved briefly to the courtroom, turned and was led out of sight, as many in the gallery broke into the Turkish national anthem.

In his final statement minutes earlier, Ocalan rejected the treason charges, and said he believed Turkey's future lay in peace, not war.

The death sentence came as little surprise. Security forces in Turkey and across Europe stepped up security ahead of time, in anticipation of violent reaction from Kurds. The U.S. State Department has also warned American citizens to take precautions.

Ocalan has the automatic right to appeal the sentence, which will eventually have to be ratified by parliament. His lawyers will also seek to tap into strong anti-death penalty sentiment in the European Union, and appeal to the European Court of Human Rights on the basis of his capture and conditions of trial.

Ocalan was captured under still-murky circumstances in Kenya last February, after he unsuccessfully sought shelter in various European countries following his expulsion - under Turkish military threats - from haven in Syria.

Earlier in the trial, he offered to use his influence to call an end to the PKK struggle if his life was spared - but warned his execution would exacerbate the violence.

In European countries with large Kurdish minorities, police are braced for the possibility of violent protests like those following Ocalan's arrest. Then, Kurds blamed Greece, the United States and Israel - among others - for collaborating in his capture.

Alon Liel, a former Israeli Ambassador to Turkey and specialist in Turkish affairs, said Tuesday the verdict was less important than its eventual implementation, should it take place.

"Very few will be surprised at this verdict. Mentally, the world has been prepared for the verdict, but not for the execution," he told CNSNews.com.

Israel has established significant military and economic ties with Turkey in recent years. As such, Israel's opinion "would carry a lot of weight in Turkey" should Ocalan be executed, Liel said.

"However, I'm not sure that Israel will express its view [in the event of the sentence being carried out]. It's a very sensitive matter."

He noted that Israel has had considerable experience with terrorists, "including terrorists who have been arrested, but never executed."

There are 25 million Kurds worldwide, most living in the area where Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran meet. Denied autonomy after the First World War, they have faced often brutal repression at the hands of the various regimes under which they live as a minority.

Their plight, and bid for self-rule, has spawned terrorist groups, the most notorious of which is Ocalan's PKK.


Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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