Turkey Faces Furor Over Ocalan Death Sentence

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Neither the verdict nor the sentence was ever in doubt; now Turkey faces a political decision over whether to hang its most hated enemy. Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was convicted of treason and sentenced to death by a Turkish court Tuesday. The death sentence –- mandatory for treason –- goes automatically to an appeals court, where it is expected to be upheld. Then it’s up to parliament and the president to sign off on the hanging –- and although Turkey hasn’t executed anyone in 15 years, the clamor for Ocalan’s head may prove irresistible. The brutal Kurdish-nationalist insurgency led by Ocalan and the ferocious Turkish government repression it occasioned has claimed as many as 30,000 lives, all of which the government blames on Ocalan.

Simply following its own instincts would in all likelihood lead Turkey’s strongly nationalist parliament to give Ocalan the rope. But pressure against executing Ocalan will come from Turkey’s NATO allies, particularly in Europe. While Western governments don’t doubt the viciousness of Ocalan’s insurgency, they tend to put it in the context of Turkey’s denial of the cultural and language rights of its Kurdish population: Turkey treats any assertion of a distinct Kurdish identity as a threat to the integrity of the state. This has allowed Ocalan, during his trial, to cloak himself in the mantle of an interlocutor for a disenfranchised population –- obviously mindful of the fact that in the Kosovo conflict NATO ostensibly went to war to secure autonomy for an oppressed group within Yugoslavia. In addition, the trial doesn’t appear to have reduced support for his cause in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast. So whether or not Turkey actually executes Ocalan, it’s likely to continue to be plagued by the cause of which he is a symptom.