Should Turkey Execute Ocalan?

Abdullah (Apo) Ocalan -- the longtime leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- was sentenced to death by a Turkish State Security Court for treason, separatism, and murder on June 29, 1999. He had been leading a still continuing insurgency against Turkey, which, since August 1984, has resulted in more than 30,000 deaths (mostly of ethnic Kurds), the destruction of more than 3,000 Kurdish villages (mostly by Turkey in an effort to dry up support for Ocalan's guerrillas), and the resulting displacement of as many as 3,000,000 ethnic Kurds (all figures released by the Turkish authorities themselves).

In recent years, however, the Turkish military had gradually marginalized Ocalan's guerrillas. Forced from his longtime sanctuary in Syria by Turkish pressure in October 1998, Ocalan sought asylum in Italy and several other West European nations. For a while it even looked like he might be able to turn his military defeat into a political victory by having some European court try him and thus also try Turkey. But relentless diplomatic pressure by the United States in support of its NATO ally Turkey (whose air bases the United States ironically needed to enforce the no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect the Iraqi Kurds) eventually forced Ocalan to leave Italy. With US (and possibly Israeli) intelligence help and under conditions still not fully explained, he was finally apprehended in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 1999 and handed over to Turkey. Now Turkey believes that by executing him it can successfully end the PKK's struggle and thus strengthen itself. The opposite is more likely because Ocalan is a classic example of one person's terrorist being another's freedom fighter. Executing him would make him a martyr and embitter many of Turkey's ethnic Kurds (who number some 20 percent of Turkey's population) for another generation.

When I interviewed Ocalan in March 1998, he admitted he has used some terrorist methods, but argued that if you looked at the historical record honestly you would see that Turkey was the real terrorist. Indeed, since its creation in the 1920s, Turkey has tried to obliterate the very existence of the Kurds by assimilating them, claiming they were just "Mountain Turks," and legally banning their language, culture, and geographical place names, among numerous other tactics. During the 1960s, Turkish president Cemal Gursel praised a book that claimed that the Kurds were Turkish in origin, and helped to popularize the phrase "spit in the face of him who calls you a Kurd" as a way to make the very word "Kurd" an insult. Peaceful democratic attempts to protest against such policies landed one in prison or worse. By pursuing such actions, Turkey itself radicalized its ethnic Kurdish population and sowed Ocalan's movement.

Ocalan began his struggle as a violent Marxist committed to establishing an independent pan-Kurdish state for the some 20-25 million Kurds in the Middle East (half of whom live in Turkey) and who constitute the largest nation in the world without their own independent state. Over the years his ideas evolved, so that by the early 1990s, Ocalan was asking for only Kurdish political and cultural rights within the pre-existing Turkish borders. In part he had mellowed in the face of the hard realities imposed by the Turkish military and the outside world hostile to any independent Kurdish state which might destabilize the volatile but strategically important Middle East. The Turkish state, however, saw Ocalan as insincere and felt that if it relented even slightly in its anti-Kurdish stance, the situation would escalate into the eventual breakup of Turkey itself as happened to its predecessor the Ottoman Empire.

Many who really know him understand how Ocalan has come to believe that both the Turks and the Kurds would be better off living together in a Turkey that has become fully democratic. When he declared a unilateral cease-fire in March 1993, for example, Ocalan stated, "Turkish-Kurd brotherhood is about 1,000 years old, and we do not accept separation from Turkey." Rather, the Kurds in Turkey "want peace, dialogue, and free political action within the framework of a democratic Turkish state." Complete democracy would not only solve the Kurdish problem within Turkey, but also fulfill the ultimate goal of Ataturk -- the founder of the Turkish Republic -- for a modern democratic Turkey that would be accepted as a member of the West.

The key to Turkey's future is to resolve the Kurdish problem democratically. From a zero-sum game that pitted Turks against Kurds, Ocalan's struggle had developed into a win/win proposition for both. Given Turkey's paucity of able political leaders, Ocalan -- who after all was born in Turkey and spoke Turkish better than Kurdish -- ironically might be seen as a better Turk than the Turkish leaders themselves.

During his recent trial, Ocalan repeated his position. He offered "to serve the Turkish state" by ending the Kurdish insurgency in return for real and complete democracy which if Turkey spared his life he argued he could then accomplish. Here was a clear strategy to achieve a just democratic peace for everyone within the existing Turkish borders. After all the Kurds are not the only ones suffering from the lack of Turkish democracy and justice.

Recently, for example, Oral Calislar, a leading Turkish journalist, was sentenced to prison as a terrorist because of a critical interview with Ocalan he had published more than five years ago. Akin Birdal, the president of the Human Rights Association in Turkey who was shot more than ten times by ultra-Turkish nationalists just last year, was sentenced this year to prison for calling for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. The state claimed Birdal was guilty of "inciting people to hatred on the basis of class, race, or regional differences." Merve Kavakci, a female member of the Islamist Virtue Party, was stripped of her Turkish citizenship for wearing a headscarf into the Turkish parliament. Supposedly, her actions demonstrated a desire to overthrow the secular Turkish Republic and establish a religious dictatorship. The Susurluk scandal in 1996 demonstrated how Turkish authorities hired right-wing criminals "on the lam" to murder hundreds of perceived civilian enemies of the state in return for turning a blind eye to their drug trafficking.

Surely Turkey is strong and wise enough to take Ocalan's offer up. Yasir Arafat, Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Shamir, and Jerry Adams were all once reviled as terrorists, but now are called statesmen. Although one might make a case for sparing Ocalan's life on the grounds of mercy or human rights, even more, not executing him is in the national interest of Turkey. Alive, Ocalan might just be able to take the steps that will end the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. If he is executed, however, it is likely that Turkey will simply buy for itself another generation of embittered Kurds and struggle that challenges so unnecessarily its very political, social, and economic foundations.

In addition, Turkey should recall that the Kurds sit on a great deal of the Middle East's water and oil resources and have become increasingly conscious of their nationality. As the Arab-Israeli dispute winds down, the Kurds more and more will be the ones destabilizing the strategic Middle East -- unless some simple but basic reforms are taken now. It would behoove Turkey's friends such as the United States to discreetly advise the Turks along these lines and encourage Turkey to institute some long overdue cultural reforms that will appear magnanimous, but satisfy the legitimate demands of most of Turkey's Kurds.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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