How Europe Saved Ocalan From the Gallows

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Last month Abdullah Ocalan put pen to paper and wrote a letter from his Turkish prison cell. In it, he urged the European Union to look kindly on his jailers' application for membership to the 15-member economic and political community — an unusual action for a man who has spent 15 years fighting a vicious guerrilla war against Turkey. But the Kurdish rebel leader reaped the benefit Wednesday, when Turkey voted to delay his execution — a punishment handed down on grounds of treason — pending a hearing by the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey's signature on the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights requires the delay, and despite the strong domestic clamor for the execution of the man blamed by Turkey for the more than 30,000 deaths caused by the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish response, Ankara's passage into full E.U. membership depends in part on its handling of the case — the death penalty is banned by the E.U., and its use is grounds for exclusion.

Apart from sparing Ocalan, the E.U. factor may also help the Turkish leaders who oppose the execution prevail over their ultra-nationalist coalition partners. But not without some political cost, as was underlined on Thursday when two relatives of soldiers slain by Kurdish rebels attempted self-immolation in protest against the government's decision. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit opposes the death penalty, and believes executing Ocalan is not in Turkey's interest. Pro-government newspapers have warned in recent days that killing the rebel leader could reignite a wave of terrorism that has subsided since the imprisoned Ocalan called for a truce, and the country's intelligence service has reportedly recommended that Ocalan be "used" by Turkey rather than turned into a martyr. That, combined with E.U. pressure on Turkey to find a political solution to Kurdish grievances, suggests that Ocalan may not only escape the gallows, but could yet play a significant role in Turkey's future.