- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

ISTANBUL A government move to abolish the death penalty and spare the life of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has driven a wedge into Turkey's fragile coalition government and placed the country at odds with the European Union (EU) that it hopes to join.
Nationalist politicians in the three-party government said over the weekend they would pull out of the coalition led by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit if he submits a constitutional amendment to parliament that would outlaw capital punishment.
The debate, which is essentially about the fate of Ocalan who was sentenced to death three years ago, came to a head after the EU Commissioner Gunther Verheugen spelled out conditions for Turkey to begin formal talks on EU membership.
During a visit to Ankara last week, Mr. Verheugen, who is in charge of EU enlargement, said officials in Brussels expected Turkey to abolish the death penalty.
The EU, he said, also expected to allow for education in the Kurdish language as a precondition for talks to begin.
The EU also has demanded that Ocalan's sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Mr. Ecevit has said he favors abolishing the death penalty but that Turkey "cannot accept Kurdish education"
Despite public support for the death penalty, Turkey has not carried out a state execution since 1984. Its rules for imposing the death penalty were amended last year to only apply to convictions during times of war or for acts of terrorism and acts against the state.
"This is a debate over Ocalan's fate that could endanger the coalition. With a low crime rate, Turkey has no use for the death penalty. But Europe requires that it be abolished for admission into the club," said a Western diplomat who monitors human rights issues.
Ocalan is by far the most prominent of Turkey's 57 prisoners held on death row. As the former leader of the Kurdish separatist movement in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, Ocalan was vilified by the state. Most Turks hold him responsible for promoting a guerrilla war that led to the deaths of about 35,000 people during the 15-year conflict.
Ocalan's movement, known by the initials PKK, have gained significant support in Europe, where there is widespread sympathy for the Kurdish cause. Messages of reconciliation since his captivity have gained an audience in the EU, which has rejected Turkish demands to place the PKK on a list of terrorist groups as the United States has done for years.
The conservative National Movement Party led by Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli pledged during national elections in 1999 that it would do everything in its power to ensure that Ocalan's death sentence is carried out.
"We are determined in our objection to lifting the death penalty for crimes against the state," party spokesman Ismail Kose said on Sunday.
The issue of Kurdish language education, meanwhile, looms as a far more difficult issue for Turkish politicians to resolve before they open talks with the EU. More than a hundred Kurdish activists were arrested last month during demonstrations in major cities, where they called for Kurdish to be taught in schools.
Turkish officials fear national unity would be lost with Kurdish education.
The country's secular constitution bans any promotion of political causes along ethnic or religious lines.
Kurds make up about 18 percent of Turkey's 67 million population, but Ankara has never classified them as a separate ethnic group. Kurdish was only recently allowed to be spoken in public places. It remains banned on radio and television stations, although Kurdish songs can be broadcast.
A Kurdish publisher was acquitted last week in an Istanbul court from charges brought by the state after he published a lecture by American intellectual Noam Chomsky, who backs use of the Kurdish language.

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