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Verdict in Kurd case strains Turkey's ties with Europe

Abdullah Ocalan is sentenced to death. Many Europeans oppose the death

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When the presiding judge at Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan's trial signed the death verdict June 28, he pointedly did not break the pen - a traditional symbol of a Turkish judge's regret at issuing a death sentence.

But Turkey's "trial of the century," which tried Mr. Ocalan for leading a 15-year fight for Kurdish autonomy that left 30,000 dead, is causing significant reckoning within the secular state. Much is at stake for Turkey, the eastern anchor of the NATO alliance, as it looks toward Europe and the West to define its future.

Turkey is still waiting to join the European Union, which would bolster Turkey's standing with the West and be a boon to its economy. After languishing for years, the application was put on hold in late 1997 - while several other countries were put on a fast-track admission process.

The EU has cited allegations of widespread human rights abuses - many of which have stemmed from the Kurdish conflict - as a key reason for denying Turkey admission.

Now, Turkey has not only convicted a Kurdish leader but has sentenced him to death - a penalty that has not been carried out in Turkey since 1984. Since Europeans tend to oppose the death penalty, Turkey's use of it may cause damage to its relations with Europe.

"Turkey now has to make a decision.... What kind of country will we be 10 or 20 years from now?" writes columnist Ismet Berkan in Istanbul's liberal daily Radikal. "If Turkey wants to stay a part of the democratic world, it has to accept that Kurds live in the country, and respect their desire to preserve their identity.... Hanging Apo [Ocalan] will make it harder to achieve this."

Ocalan has warned that if he is executed, violence will break out in Turkey, and his Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has said it will resort to "total war." Prior to the verdict, security was stepped up in Turkey and in capitals across Europe, where in February violent Kurdish protest broke out after Ocalan's capture by Turkish agents in Kenya.

"Opinion is divided," says Seyfi Tashan, the head of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. "On one side is satisfying the vengeance of thousands of people whose sons died. But the Europeans are averse to the death penalty. It will be very difficult to balance the public desire with the interests of the Turkish state."


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