Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
A Turkish court was set to hand down the death penalty to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan as Socialist Review went to press. The trial was a mockery of justice.
Ocalan was allowed to meet his lawyers for only about an hour a week to prepare his defence in the run up to the trial. The meetings took place in the presence of security officers. The prison authorities also videotaped them and took photocopies of the lawyers' notes. His lawyers were beaten by the police and subjected to attacks by mobs incited against them by state officials. The lawyers now face possible charges of 'aiding the PKK'--the guerilla movement Ocalan leads--merely through their role in defending him.
The European Court of Human Rights has declared the trial unfair but that has not led the US and Britain to protest at the behaviour of their Nato ally. On the contrary, they stepped up military cooperation with Turkey in the war against Yugoslavia throughout the trial.
But the trial of Ocalan has presented the Turkish ruling class with a fundamental dilemma even as it told the public that capturing Ocalan would lead to a more stable Turkey and the end of the Kurdish insurgency. Any death penalty in Turkey has to be endorsed by the parliament before it is carried out. Since 1984 many death sentences have been passed, but none has been confirmed in parliament (there have, however, been hundreds of extra-judicial state executions).
So a death sentence for Ocalan becomes a directly political issue and Turkish official politics is deeply fractured. The current ruling coalition includes a Tory party and the fascist National Action Party, but is headed by Bülent Ecevit's social democrats. Ecevit is opposed to the death penalty--the fascists, of course, support it and are calling for Ocalan to hang.
If the Turkish state hangs Ocalan it will cast aside the chance, in the short term, of the kind of peace process which brought an end to open war in Northern Ireland and Palestine. However, not hanging the man the Turkish state has christened the 'baby murderer' and who it claims is responsible for 30,000 deaths would create uproar in the army and be a gift to the fascists, who doubled their vote to 19 percent in the recent general election.
Ocalan has held out the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the 15 year long war between the Turkish state and the PKK in return for his life. On the opening day of the trial he offered to call a halt to the fighting and to bring the PKK guerrillas down from the hills. He said, 'I am ready to serve the Turkish state and I believe that for this end I must remain alive. I extend my apologies to the families of the martyred soldiers. Henceforth my efforts will be devoted for peace and brotherhood.' The announcement came as a bolt from the blue and it took the PKK leadership two days to respond to it.
The tone of capitulation rather than the offer of negotiations led many Kurdish activists to believe that Ocalan had been drugged or tortured. Others were bitterly disappointed.
The PKK eventually endorsed Ocalan's stand, saying, 'Our entire party organisation, with supreme unity and cohesion, is bound to and fully supportive of the efforts of our leader.' But it warned, 'If the Turkish Republic and the various interlocutors in the region and the world think this is weakness, they are badly mistaken. We have made every preparation and are ready to fight on in the same way we have fought for 15 years. But we say that 15 years of war is more than enough.' But the Turkish army continued to rule out talks despite Ocalan's concessions.
Ocalan's trial has become a thorn in the side of the Turkish government. But it is also a watershed for the PKK. There were already signs of a rift within the organisation about how to continue the struggle, which had reached an impasse after 15 years of guerrilla war. Some members wanted to maintain the armed struggle. Others were desperate for an Irish or Palestinian style peace process. Neither of these strategies offers a path to a decent life for Kurds in south east Turkey, as the continuing misery in the West Bank and Gaza strip testifies.
The trial has been accompanied by an upsurge of hysterical chauvinism in Turkey. But it has also highlighted the instability of a state which is mired in economic and political crisis. That crisis is forcing Turkish and Kurdish workers to confront one and the same ruling class. It is also creating the conditions for fresh political currents to emerge which can beat a path to the single most powerful force for ending Kurdish oppression the Turkish and Kurdish working class.