By Kendal Nezan
After wandering round Europe for four months, Abdullah Öcalan (Apo) was finally handed over to the Turks in Kenya on 15 February 1999 and transferred to Turkey’s Imrali jail. It was in this island-prison, generally reserved for people sentenced to death, that former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers were executed in 1960. And it is here that the head of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), engaged in armed struggle against the Turks since 1984, is to be tried.
The Kurds feel scorned and humiliated and keep complaining "the Kurds have no friends". For most of them, the PKK leader has been the victim not just of a veritable manhunt, but also a Turkish/American/Israeli "plot" to which the Greek and Kenyan governments have been party. That is the reason for their anger and the wave of often violent demonstrations against these countries’ embassies and consulates in Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus - which could well continue and grow yet more radical. As a precaution, the Turks arrested nearly 2,000 Kurds and Turkish human rights activists in the space of a week, and denied access to Kurdistan to the international media.
Europe, which has welcomed its fair share of corrupt and violent dictators to its shores, closed its doors to Öcalan under pressure from the United States and also for fear of Turkish economic reprisals, especially over arms sales. Kenya, on the verge of bankruptcy and under pressure from Washington (which has accused it of laxness after the bloody August 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi), could not but agree to carry out its assigned role.
Greece has played a far more murky game. Greek public opinion, mostly pro-Kurdish, was not at all pleased by its government’s "betrayal" and Prime Minister Constantin Simitis was forced to sack three of his ministers including Theodore Pangalos, minister for foreign affairs. The authorities have given no satisfactory account of either their motives for sending Öcalan to Kenya - known for its links with Israeli intelligence as well as its vulnerability to US pressure - or of exactly how their diplomats handed him over to the Kenyan authorities. According to Turkish press reports, Athens agreed to trade Öcalan for a go-ahead from the US and Turkey to install Cyprus’s Russian-bought SS-300 missiles in Crete; but there is obviously more to it than that.
Israel, for its part, claims it did not directly take part in the Öcalan operation. Yet Mossad was the first to inform Ankara of his arrival in Moscow last October and the Israelis have helped train Turkey’s "special forces" to fight the PKK. On 4 February 1999 the well-known New York Times columnist William Safire claimed co-operation between the US and Israeli intelligence services to get Öcalan arrested.
The US, which has been looking for new ways to topple Saddam Hussein ever since its bungled secret operations in Iraq in 1996, badly needs Turkey’s co-operation as a member of Nato, and in particular to carry on using its base at Incerlik. To satisfy Ankara, Washington put the PKK on its list of terrorist organisation even though it had not carried out any attack on the US.
For Washington the PKK is also a major obstacle to the peace agreement forged in September 1998 under the aegis of Madeleine Albright between the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties. And both Syria and Iran have been using the PKK to oppose the pax americana. So from Washington’s standpoint the PKK and its leader are "beyond redemption" - and need to be got rid of. The project has a bearing on its ability to nudge Turkey into democratisation and eventual integration into the European Union.
Unlike their Ottoman predecessors who out of respect did no more than deport Kurdish rebel chieftains, the rulers of modern Turkey have hanged the leaders of Kurdish insurrections. If the Turks are to continue this tradition established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Öcalan would, after the bare formalities of a trial, get a death sentence for high treason under Article 125 of the penal code - unless there is exceptional international pressure. Or Öcalan gives in, under the effect of drugs that affect the personality and weak from his wanderings.
Several Western states have called on Ankara to give him a fair trial. These seem pious hopes. Turkey sentenced one of its intellectuals, Ismail Besikci, to 200 years of prison for his writings on the Kurds. And despite calls for a fair trial, Kurdish members of parliament were sentenced in 1994 to 15 years of prison for their beliefs. It will be those same State Security Court judges who will try Öcalan under laws incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
We may recall the execution of Seyit Riza, the legendary leader of the Kurdish rebellion of 1937. To celebrate the event, Atatürk went to the region himself on 30 November, ostensibly to inaugurate a bridge on the Euphrates. Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil (president of the republic in the 1970s) learned that local notables wished to make representations to the "father of the Turkish nation" to save Riza. He wrote in his memoirs (1) that he had been "called to the spot by the government so that those who were to be hanged would be dealt with before Atatürk’s visit".
When he arrived on the evening of Friday 27 November, Çaglayangil went to see the prosecutor who told him that the court could not sit on the Saturday, as it was not a working day. On the advice of his deputy, an old university friend, he went to see the governor who declared the prosecutor "on leave". Next he went to the judge, who also maintained that by law the court could not sit until the Monday. However the court did sit on the night of Sunday-Monday in a room lit by storm lanterns. And duly sentenced the Kurdish chieftain and six of his followers to death.
There was no right of appeal, and General Abdullah Pasha, the highest military official of the region, signed his ratification of the verdict in advance on plain paper. The seven men were taken to a scaffold lit by police vehicle lights at three in the morning. The Kurdish chieftain, aged 75, pushed the hangman out of the way and tied the cord around his own neck, shouting: "You haven’t finished with the Kurds: my people will have their revenge!". The next day Atatürk began his visit. Justice had been done, the formalities respected, and the Kurdish rebellion had been "definitively quelled".
Violence of despair
Without illusions, the PKK is now preparing its militants for another fatal outcome, quoting something Öcalan is supposed to have said: "My death will help the Kurdish cause more than my life". A PKK ruling council - consisting notably of Cemil Bayik, the party’s number two, Osman Öcalan, Apo’s brother, and Murat Karayalcin - broadcast a statement on the Kurdish television channel MED-TV on 18 February calling for the "extension of the war to all civilian and military targets in Turkey and Kurdistan" and "peaceful demonstrations abroad".
This new leadership considers that "all PKK members will henceforth live and fight as fedayin", that Turkey is "mistaken to rejoice" and "will soon regret Öcalan who did everything possible to stop the conflict between his followers and the Turkish army degenerating into a Turkish-Kurdish war". The PKK press is regularly publishing editorials calling for a radicalising of the struggle, arguing that since the world has become hell on earth for the Kurds, they should in turn make it hell for the Turks and their Western allies, saying "Every Kurd should turn into a bomb until our sacrifice opens the eyes of the world to the Kurdish tragedy in Turkey".
It would be foolish to dismiss these threats born of despair. Thousands of Kurds, perhaps tens of thousands, are likely to turn to blind violence. Yet Turkey remains deaf to the most elementary claims like recognising language rights. In a statement to the daily Milliyet on 19 February, President Süleyman Demirel said there was no question of giving the Kurds schools or media in their own language for it "would lead to the country’s partition". According to his prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, a left-wing nationalist responsible for the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Öcalan’s capture will "definitively" deal with the "so-called Kurdish question".
There are 850,000 Kurds living in different Western European countries and the constant influx of refugees caused by the war in Turkey’s south-east is causing growing problems of public order. This means the West has an interest to intervene with Ankara. It alone could force the government to recognise the need for an acceptable status for the 15 million Kurds in Turkey, similar to that which the Contact Group is trying to impose on Serbia to protect the 1.8 million Albanians of Kosovo. The Kurds have had enough of Western double standards. Are they to remain the only people in the world of their size to be denied a recognised legal presence?