Why Turkey Should Not Hang Ocalan…Now

The capture of Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish commandos last February ignited a national celebration in Turkey.  After all, Ocalan, the supremo of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was held responsible for the deaths of some 30,000 people, half of whom were either innocent civilians (mostly Kurds) or military and police personnel.  That capture, however, proved to be only the beginning of the end of Turkey’s PKK headache, not the end itself. 

On the face of it, the fate of Ocalan should have been a straightforward matter. He was tried under Turkish law, found guilty of treason and separatism — both capital offenses — and sentenced to hang. His appeals to the highest courts and the prosecution were both rejected according to law. All that is left under Turkish law is for the Parliament to approve the sentence and the President of the Republic to confirm it; after that, there is only the hangman.

But Ocalan is no ordinary murderer — and not just because of the enormity of his crimes — nor is his case simply a matter of criminal law. To the contrary, this is a case with enormous political ramifications.  How things are handled may jeopardize — or save — thousands of lives in the future.

Since his capture, Ocalan has enthusiastically cooperated with the authorities: he named names, “assumed responsibility” for atrocities, and renounced both “armed struggle” (i.e., terrorism) and secessionism. Furthermore, he ordered some of his followers to surrender (which they did), and all of them to withdraw from Turkey, which most seem to have done. According to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, “separatist terrorist acts have greatly diminished [since Ocalan’s capture].  They have almost reached zero.”

While it is true that the PKK was in decline even before Ocalan’s capture — owing both to the loss of its  Syrian/Lebanese bases in 1998 and to a dramatic improvement in Turkish counterinsurgency tactics — that decline has accelerated dramatically since Ocalan’s capture.  A brief outburst of suicide bombings following the capture ceased abruptly, on Ocalan’s orders, and a number of violent hardliners have been forced out, the latest being Murat Karayilan, a member of the  “Leadership Council” (Politburo).

Obviously, Ocalan’s new-found desire for a “political solution” has a lot to do with the prospect of hanging.  But equally obvious, and of greater significance, is the fact that Ocalan continues to control the bulk of his organization, if not all of it, and does so while under the supervision of the government.  As long as he lives, the remaining PKK leaders cannot solve the succession problem, particularly since Ocalan was founder, strategist, ideologue and tactician all rolled into one.  For the PKK leaders and rank-and-file alike, Ocalan’s captivity, and the orders he gives from jail, introduce a deadly element into the life of any insurgency: uncertainty as to whether his orders are indeed his, whether they have been accurately transmitted, and whether he has the organization’s interests rather than his own in mind.

If the experience of the equally violent Shining Path in Peru following Abimael Guzm n’s capture in 1992 is any guide, once such a leader is lost, so are the organization’s coherence, motivation, strategic purpose, and operational capabilities.  These considerations alone should persuade the Turkish elites that, at the very least, it is not in the country’s interest to execute Ocalan — certainly not soon. It is also likely that similar considerations explain the somewhat unexpected silence of the influential Turkish armed forces on this matter.  Simply put, military and intelligence professionals appear to believe that Ocalan is far more useful to Turkey alive than dead.  Consider, too, that his hanging would likely be followed by indiscriminate and uncoordinated violence by desperate followers seeking martyrdom.

If there are good strategic reasons for keeping Ocalan alive, there are also bad political reasons for doing so.  These follow from the fact that the PKK issue has become internationalized, for Ocalan and the PKK enjoy widespread support in Western Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, where government, leftist parties, and “human rights” groups often overlap. Thus, Italy had Ocalan in its hands in 1998 and let him go; Germany was so intimidated by his threats that it refused to honor its own arrest warrant against him; and Greece for years gave him and his organization refuge, support, and operating bases.

None of this is new or surprising to most Turks or outside observers; what is new is the coincidence of the Ocalan imbroglio with the European Union’s decision, at its Helsinki meeting in December, to grant Ankara the status of candidate for EU membership. That means that Turkey has the obligation to obey EU rules and idiosyncrasies in the present in exchange for membership consideration in the future.  One of those idiosyncrasies is the West European opposition to capital punishment in general, and in the Ocalan case in particular.  That sparing Ocalan is a pre-condition for any further consideration of Turkey’s EU membership was made clear by the open threats from one EU spokesman after another — German, Finish, and Swedish.  It may also be added that the Ocalan cause celebre serves as an useful cover for those EU members (Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany come to mind) who never really wanted a Muslim Turkey in their European/Western club in the first place.

A few years ago,  Ankara would have demonstrated that Turkey does not take kindly to outsiders’ threats, and Ocalan would have hanged.  Today, however, the Turkish political elite is unsure of its own identity and values.  Prime Minister Ecevit, a social democrat, is “personally opposed” to the death penalty, and his third most important government partner, former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party (ANAP), thinks that concessions to Kurdish demands (not necessarily those of the PKK) are the way to EU membership.  However, the second largest government party, the Nationalist Movement (MHP) led by Devlet Bahceli, is a strong supporter of Ocalan’s execution.  So are the  opposition Islamist party (FP), led by Recai Kutan,  and the True Path party (DYP).  Meanwhile, President Suleyman Demirel seems to be on his way out, with no clear successor in sight.

With all his options exhausted within the national legal system, Ocalan will appeal to the European Court for Human Rights, which will certainly  reject the death sentence and ask for commutation — or worse, a new trial with “European” lawyers representing Ocalan. Incidentally those are the same German and Dutch radical lawyers who “represented”  such past “freedom fighters” as the German Baader Meinhof Gang. This could take as long as 18 months, giving time for a cooling off of the public’s emotions in Turkey as well as allowing for a further disintegration of the PKK.  While this would benefit Turkey’s counterterrorist campaign, it would also set a dangerous precedent for future dealings with leftist and Islamist terrorism in the country.

Turkey’s unusual position with respect to Ocalan’s fate is that the strategic calculation of national interest happens to coincide with the mushy, moralistic, alien values of the EU.  The problem is to do the right thing — spare Ocalan’s life at least for now — while not appearing to be caving to external pressures that threaten Turkey’s national values, identity, and interests.

This author is no opponent of capital punishment and harbors no doubt that Ocalan richly deserves the noose. But the hanging of Abdullah Ocalan — now, anyway — is not in Turkey’s national interest.