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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON TURKEY

Another Problematic Extradition Question

Sometimes peace and human rights must take precedence over the strict imposition of justice.

November 19, 1998|JOHN TIRMAN | John Tirman, executive director of the Winston Foundation for World Peace in Washington, is the author of "Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade" (Free Press, 1997)

Europe now faces two perplexing extradition cases. The first and more famous is that of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, accused of thousands of murders during his 17-year dictatorship in Chile. The second involves Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish guerrilla leader who fought an authoritarian regime in Turkey for almost 15 years. Both cases present wrenching questions for human rights and peace.

While the Pinochet case is not easy to resolve, it looks simple compared with Ocalan's. The prosecution of Pinochet, for example, might have a divisive impact on a healing Chilean society. In Ocalan's case, a bitter civil war still rages.

The 49-year-old Kurd has conducted a violent guerrilla campaign against the Turks since 1984. He was based in Syria, which protected him until Turkey threatened war this autumn. Ocalan fled to Russia and was arrested after flying to Rome last week. Turkey has demanded extradition. Italy, which will not extradite for political prosecutions or if the accused may be executed, is studying the matter.

The cause of the rebellion by Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is indeed political--namely, the savage treatment of the Kurdish population in Turkey for 70 years. The Kurdish people, settled in southeastern Anatolia long before the Turks arrived from Central Asia, lived peacefully under the Ottoman Empire. But under the Turkish Republic created by Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Kurds have been subjected to repeated pogroms. They have been forbidden from using their language and customs. The southeast is impoverished and shortchanged by the central government in Ankara.

These indignities stirred several uprisings, but the PKK's is the most serious. It has led the Turkish military to crack down on all expressions of dissent over its Kurdish policy. No Kurdish political parties can function. Several Kurdish members of Parliament, including the dissident Leyla Zana, are jailed. More than 3,200 Kurdish villages have been evacuated by the military, with 2 million villagers forced out of their homes. Some 35,000 people have died in the fighting between the PKK and the military since 1984. The military will not consider any political solution to the uprising, such as granting full language rights or permitting Kurdish parties, because of its rigid Turkish nationalism.

The evacuation policy and continuing repression are among the worst human rights violations in the world. The extradition of Ocalan to Turkey, which would certainly result in his execution, would reinforce the Turkish military's belligerence. Without some conditions on extradition, Ocalan's trial and death would accomplish nothing.

Here is where the application of law must be flexible. To their credit, the Italians recognize this. But how to proceed? To flatly deny extradition is wrong: Ocalan almost certainly ordered many executions of noncombatants like Turkish teachers in the southeast. These are vicious, criminal acts. But before sending him back, the Italians should insist on certain conditions.

The most ambitious condition would be an actual end to the civil war, with the Turks granting full political and social rights to Kurds and the PKK demobilizing. Truth commissions and war crimes investigations could follow. But that might be too much to hope for.

Instead, the Italians may choose a less dramatic course: Demand the release of political prisoners such as Zana in exchange for Ocalan. This would be momentous and symbolic, because Zana and other dissidents represent the nonviolent path of reform. By prosecuting Ocalan only for criminal acts of violence and by not imposing a death sentence, Turkey would in effect be saying it, too, is choosing the path of peaceful reform. Ocalan could be persuaded by the Italians to guarantee a permanent cease-fire.

It would then be time for Turkey's friends, like the United States, to insist on the political reforms that would satisfy Kurdish grievances. In fact, the U.S. is crucial to overcoming Turkish resistance to such a bargain.

In these volatile political cases, extradition can be a tool to achieve something larger. For Pinochet, it might be possible to prosecute without imprisonment, establishing an important standard of accountability. For Ocalan, the real goal is to prevent more deaths and refugees and to broaden human rights. In both cases, justice is served imperfectly so that peace is served more generously.

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