ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's highest appeals court Thursday upheld the death sentence for Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, prompting new warnings from the West that his execution by hanging would undermine the country's bid for European Union membership.
Hundreds of relatives of Turkish soldiers killed while fighting Ocalan's 15-year struggle for Kurdish self-rule hugged each other and whooped for joy outside the courthouse in Ankara, the capital, as the decision was announced. The captured warlord, 50, was convicted in June on treason charges.
For his enemies, however, euphoria was quickly tempered by predictions that the guerrilla known as Apo will never see the gallows.
The once-obscure rebel chief has been the focus of international attention since Turkish special agents arrested him in Kenya in February. He has been in solitary confinement on the prison island of Imrali, southwest of Istanbul, where his monthlong trial took place.
Turkish leaders, aware that Ocalan's fate is intertwined with the country's hopes of joining the European Union, said they will take no action against Ocalan until the European Court of Human Rights in France acts on an expected appeal by his lawyers.
"We will have to take the [European] court's opinions into consideration," Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said after Thursday's ruling.
Under Turkish law, executions require the approval of parliament, which has not given it since 1984. Western diplomats say the 550-member legislature is in no hurry to debate Ocalan's fate.
The 15-member European Union is set to vote at its annual summit next month on whether to make Turkey a candidate for membership. The road from formal candidacy to full membership usually takes years, and European leaders, who often criticize Turkey's human rights record, have made it clear that Ankara's bid would be cut short if it hanged the Kurdish leader.
"We would like to remind Turkey, like other candidate countries, that we expect them to withdraw the death penalty if they are to become member states," EU spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said Thursday.
"If the sentence is carried out, it would not fit in with the EU's policy on the death sentence," said Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, whose nation currently holds the EU presidency. No EU member country practices capital punishment.
Even the most hawkish Turkish commentators conceded that hanging Ocalan--labeled "the baby killer" by many Turks because of his guerrilla group's killing of pro-government civilians--would not serve the national interest.
Emin Colasan, a columnist for the newspaper Hurriyet, wrote: "Let us be realistic. Can we hang Apo under these circumstances? Wouldn't we be making this twopenny guy a hero?"
That view is said to be widely shared by Turkey's powerful armed forces, not least because Ocalan is proving to be more useful alive than dead.
Pleading for his own life, Ocalan dropped his demand for Kurdish independence during his trial and now says that Turkey's 12 million Kurds need only "cultural autonomy."
Since his conviction, Ocalan has ordered his followers to stop fighting and to withdraw from Turkish territory to mountain bases in Kurdish-controlled sectors of Iraq and Iran. Not only have they complied, but 16 senior members of the guerrilla group have also surrendered to Turkish authorities during the past month in an effort to prove that their leader is sincere about making peace.
The army announced last month that clashes in Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeastern region have declined dramatically in the months since Ocalan declared a unilateral cease-fire and pledged to turn his movement into a political party. But it also vowed to keep up its fight against the guerrillas "until every last terrorist is neutralized."
"The overtures of the esteemed Ocalan are bearing fruit," said Irfan Dundar, one of the rebel chief's lawyers. Dundar pointed to recent recommendations by Turkey's justice and human rights ministers to abolish the death penalty as a "sure sign that things are moving in the right direction."
Even so, hard-liners on both sides could yet torpedo the budding climate of peace. Chief among them are members of the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party, a member of Turkey's three-party governing coalition.
Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, a leader of the party, said Thursday that the European court's ruling will not be binding on Turkey. The former economics professor has frequently voiced his desire to see Ocalan hanged.