If Turkish editors and commentators are right in their assessment of the effect of Abdullah Öcalan’s conciliatory gestures from prison on popular and establishment attitudes towards Kurdish rights and on the question of whether or not to execute him, then there appears to have been a sea-change in public opinion, which puts Kurdish rights and Öcalan’s role in advancing them.
Before his capture and trial, most Turks were eager to see him executed for what they believed to be his responsibility, as leader of the Turkish Workers Party (PKK), for more than 30,000 deaths in the past 15 years. Fuelling this hatred of him and desire for revenge was a relentless campaign in Turkey for a death-sentence by the families of those who had lost their lives during this period.
But during his trial, Öcalan, contrary to all expectations, assumed the role of dove, apologising for his past mistakes and calling on the PKK to abandon its armed struggle in favour of a campaign for government recognition of Kurdish cultural rights. And after his widely-expected conviction for treason and separatism, and the imposition of the death-sentence on June 29, he became even more conciliatory, appealing to the authorities to spare his life as they would never be able to solve the Kurdish rebellion without his help.
The PKK leader, continuing his pressure on the Turkish government to accept his peace plan, issued a written statement from prison on July 7, urging the authorities to accept his offer, as lack of progress would lead to his loss of control over PKK activists. In his 3-page letter handed to the head of the prison where he is kept, Öcalan also accused Ankara of failing to take even ‘tortoise steps’ towards recognizing Kurdish rights.
But despite his apparent attempts to ingratiate himself with the Turkish government to save his life (he has six months before the sentence can be executed), demonstrations of support by Kurdish sympathisers outside Turkey continue. Even on the very day he handed his latest letter to the prison head, a large demonstration was held in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. The demonstrators not only backed his call for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue but also asserted that he was the legitimate leader of all Kurds, not only of the PKK, and should be set free.
Apparently by coincidence, the PKK leader’s new stance was reinforced the following day, July 8, by an anti-Turkey judgement in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Court convicted Turkey on 13 counts of violating Kurds’ free speech, and two regarding torture and missing people. Turkey was also ordered to pay compensation.
But even more surprisingly, Öcalan's new line has led to ‘a dramatic change’ in Turkish public opinion, according to many observers. Mehmet Ali Birand, a Turkish journalist and commentator writing in the International Herald Tribune, said “the question of whether to give Öcalan the benefit of the doubt is being asked in all segments of Turkish society. And, again for the first time, some of the ‘more prominent establishment figures’ are publicly saying that his execution would have ‘a negative impact’ on the country’s long-term interests”. “For the first time,” he adds, “the heart of Turkey is beating with hope for a real peace.”
One of the signs of the change Birand is describing appeared when Ertugal Ozkok, the influential editor of the mass circulation daily Hurriat, argued for a spirit of caution on the question of executing Öcalan. Since Hurriet frequently reflects the official line on issues, it is possible that he was inspired by senior government or military officials to write this piece. In any case, he is unlikely to have urged a course of action that the military, the final arbiters in the land, would object to.
In deciding whether or not to execute the PKK leader, the authorities are likely to take into account the pressure from Europe and the US to commute the sentence. Ankara has been under considerable pressure from the European Union to abrogate its death penalty law in line with most Western European countries, but it has escaped serious censure for some years by not executing death sentences passed by its courts. And Turkey’s strong response to Italy’s demand that Öcalan’s life be spared is mainly for local consumption: Turkey has told Italy to face the consequences of interfering in its domestic affairs.
But if obsevers and commentators such as Birand are right, and there is dramatic change in public opinion, then Ankara will find it easier to please both local and foreign opinion. The question then will be: what is Öcalan offering?
Muslimedia: July 16-31, 1999