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Kurd Locked in Solitary Cell Holds Key to Turkish Peace 18 mars 2013

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Wall Street Journal Europe (USA) March 18, 2013, p. 12-13

By  Joe Parkinson  and  Ayla Albayrak, Istanbul

Leader of Militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party Is Negotiating Deal That Could Halt Guerrilla War

Abdullah Ocalan has spent 14 years in solitary confinement in an island prison about 30 kilometers south of here, but he is negotiating a peace deal that could halt a bloody guerrilla war, upend Turkish politics and reverberate across the Middle East.

Mr. Ocalan, leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been imprisoned since his capture by Turkish Special Forces in 1999. His hair and mustache are whitened with age. No one besides a handful of government officials, politicians, lawyers and family members has seen his face or heard his voice in more than decade.

Yet, in recent weeks, the man the Turkish media dubbed « The Baby Killer » has been crafting a deal with government intelligence agents that would see the PKK lay down arms in exchange for greater autonomy for Turkey’s estimated 15 million Kurds, according to Kurdish and government officials involved in the talks. The Kurds represent about a fifth of the population of Turkey, a key U.S. ally, and the guerrilla war begun by Mr. Ocalan has claimed 40,000 lives since 1984.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ocalan sent a handwritten letter to senior PKK leaders in Northern Iraq proposing a cease-fire in late March and the withdrawal of guerrilla fighters from Turkish territory by August, Kurdish officials involved in the talks say. In return, Ankara would set up a parliamentary commission to enshrine the rights of Kurds in Turkish laws. Kurds want greater autonomy in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, including education in their mother tongue, which is now banned.

The negotiations got a big boost Wednesday when the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, freed a group of Turkish soldiers and officials held captive in northern Iraq for more than a year. Ankara immediately hailed the release as a positive step for the peace process.

« This is a good thing and the process continues as foreseen, » said Hussein Celik, government spokesman and deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party. « We want this bloodshed to stop and this fire to be put out. »

A peace deal could usher a new political settlement in Turkey and help realize the ambition of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rule for another decade, according to analysts.

Mr. Erdogan, already elected for the maximum three successive parliamentary terms permitted by his party, bestrides Turkish politics like no one since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The prime minister has made little secret that he is eyeing a run for Turkey’s presidency when the country holds its first direct elections next year.

That post is currently a largely ceremonial role, but Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party wants to overhaul the country’s constitution to create an executive presidency that would allow Mr. Erdogan to stay in power.

Some analysts say Mr. Erdogan is betting support for his peace bid from Kurdish lawmakers, the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, would enable him to overhaul Turkey’s constitution and ride a wave of positive publicity to capture a beefed-up presidency at the polls.

A peace deal also could alter the power dynamics in a region being reshaped by uprisings and the reduction of the American military presence. It could speed one of Turkey’s most dramatic geopolitical shifts — its deepening ties with the oil-rich Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey aspires to be a political model for nascent Muslim democracies emerging from the Arab Spring, and a peace deal would boost its standing in the region.

« If we can resolve this issue and Kurds, Turks and others can look at each other as human beings not as ethnic groups, we will release an explosion of development in Turkey and be the undisputed regional leader, » a senior Turkish government official involved in the talks said.

Huge obstacles to brokering a peace deal remain. Trust between the parties, while growing, remains fragile.

Turkish fighter jets are conducting regular airstrikes on the PKK’s mountainous headquarters in northern Iraq. Kurdish militants earlier this month detonated a bomb under a military vehicle in southeast Turkey, wounding four soldiers, Turkish security officials said.

Both parties warn that failure to reach a settlement could plunge the region into a renewed cycle of conflict. Mr. Ocalan has warned in a statement read by Kurdish lawmakers that Turkey could become as troubled as Syria or Iraq if steps weren’t taken to end the insurgency.

The prison compound on Imrali Island, which in 1961 was the site of the execution of a Turkish prime minister following a military coup, marks an unlikely setting for negotiations that could shape Turkey’s future. A four-hour ferry ride from Istanbul across the Marmara Sea, the island is home to a sprawling prison compound guarded by hundreds of soldiers.

p. 13

Mr. Ocalan has been held there in virtual isolation alongside five others jailed for terrorism. Until January, when Turkish authorities installed a television set in his cell, he got all his information through books and a short wave radio tuned by authorities to Turkey’s state channel. Visitors are searched six times per trip, can’t bring a pen or paper, and can’t touch Mr. Ocalan, said Ibrahim Bilmez, one of his lawyers, who is now imprisoned for alleged links to the PKK.

Kurdish lawmakers who visited Mr. Ocalan in February said the PKK leader met them in a room where he presented them with handwritten instructions for guerrilla commanders and key operatives in Iraq and Europe. The meeting lasted approximately two hours and was monitored by two Turkish intelligence agents who stayed in the room.

« Despite solitary confinement, he is on top of everything. His intelligence and instinct is intact and apart from his eyes he looked healthy, » said BDP lawmaker Altan Tan, part of the delegation, referring to a longtime condition that causes Mr. Ocalan’s left eye to tear continuously.

Turkey’s Ministry of Justice declined to comment or provide access to the island, as did the National Intelligence Agency.

Publicly negotiating with Mr. Ocalan was unthinkable until recently to Ankara, which considered him political poison. Last year, the guerrilla war resulted in more than 600 deaths, mostly Kurds, according to the International Crisis Group, marking one of the bloodiest years since the conflict began. Analysts say the scale of the killing convinced both parties that a military solution to the problem was impossible, spurring the peace talks.

« There is a now strong demand from the public for the violence to end and for democratization. This time, I’m more hopeful than ever before, » said Cevat Ones, former deputy undersecretary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization.

Another factor boosting talks is the rapidly expanding autonomy of Kurds in Syria, where a PKK-affiliated political party, backed by an armed militia loyal to Mr. Ocalan, has taken control in pockets of the country’s predominantly Kurdish northeast. That has increased fears in Ankara that the Turkish Kurds would push for the creation of an independent country made up of border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Syria if the Turkish government can’t reach a settlement with them, according to government officials.

Opposition parties have accused Mr. Erdogan of holding Turkey’s future hostage to his desire to stay in power. « This government has gone out of control . . . There has never before been a Prime Minister and a government who had become so petty and who so despised their national values and identity, » said Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party in a statement last week.

The upshot is a situation where Mr. Erdogan now needs Mr. Ocalan to convince battle-hardened PKK fighters based in the mountains of northern Iraq and sympathizers across Turkey and in Europe that they should back the peace initiative. The prime minister also needs Mr. Ocalan’s support to win over Turkey’s large Kurdish voting bloc.

In a bid to allay skepticism among Turkey’s Kurds, Ankara has unveiled a series of conciliatory moves: A cabinet shuffle in January replaced ministers hostile to peace talks with those who have supported negotiations. Turkish courts and some state schools are now allowing some teaching of the Kurdish language. A new high-budget play performed in Kurdish — a production of Shakespeare’s « Hamlet » — began touring Turkish cities in December.

So far, many Turks and Kurds have cautiously welcomed the initiative. Turkish and Kurdish lawmakers reacted with restraint earlier this month when three senior PKK operatives were gunned down in an execution-style killing in Paris, in what was seen as an attempt to sabotage the peace process.

Kurdish politicians and PKK commanders based in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains say Mr. Ocalan retains the authority needed to compel the PKK’s various factions to support a peace deal. Analysts stress that the organization, which espouses a Marxist philosophy, retains a rigidly hierarchical structure that encourages an almost religious devotion to Mr. Ocalan.

« If Apo said yes to peace, no one in the organization would reject it, » said Mr. Ocalan’s younger brother Mehmet after visiting the PKK chief in January, employing the name for the leader commonly used by supporters. « He is the only bridge between the Kurdish people and the people needed to make peace. »

But the government still faces an uphill battle to overcome persistent skepticism among Turks, given the longevity of the Kurdish conflict. Turkish intelligence agents in 2008 began clandestine talks with the PKK, which fell apart in 2011 amid renewed violence in southeast Turkey.

In a poll last month, 50% of Turks said the country’s terrorism problem should be resolved by military force, and 55% opposed negotiations with terrorists. Pro-Kurdish MPs abandoned a tour to explain the peace talks after hundreds of ultranationalists staged violent demonstrations against them.

“I don’t approve of these talks. First you call him a Baby Killer, now you negotiate with him… Isn’t Turkish army powerful enough to crush a few bandits on the mountain?” said Kadir Yagci, chestnut seller on a street in Istanbul’s business district.

Amid fears of sparking a nationalist backlash, the prime minister still has tough words for the Kurds. In November, he proposed removing Kurdish lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution and charging them with supporting terrorism— in an apparent bid to garner favor with nationalist voters. A month later, he expressed regret for lifting the death penalty that spared Mr. Ocalan from execution in 1999.

Nonetheless, on the streets of Diyarbakir, unofficial capital of the region’s Kurds for centuries, there are growing signs of optimism that the conflict could be nearing its end.

The construction of shopping centers, halted four years ago because of violence, has restarted. Turkish security forces in the city, long seen as enforcers of an oppressive state policy, have adopted a more restrained policing stance. An unofficial tutorial college has begun to offer classes of mathematics, physics and history to 90 teenagers in Kurdish.

Turkey’s state news agency reported earlier this month that 90 Turkish policemen in Diyarbakir had enrolled in Kurdish language courses in a bid to ease tensions with the local population. Turkish media reported earlier this month that Dicle University in Diyarbakir had been granted permission to open a graduate program that would double the number of Kurdish teachers.

Businesses across the city of 2.5 million are betting peace could kick-start regional investment, long muted due to violence, poor infrastructure, flawed government policies and PKK sabotage, kidnappings and extortion.

Husband and wife business team Sahismail and Filiz Bedirhanoglu say Diyarbakir’s strategic location could make the city an important hub for booming trade with Kurdish-controlled Iraq, now Turkey’s second largest trade partner.

« During our wedding in 1990, we were warned by the police because the hotel played a Kurdish song, » said Mrs. Bedirhanoglu, who heads the city’s chamber of commerce. « Now the state is talking to Ocalan. We’ve come so far and the end is now in sight. »


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