December 1998

Turkey's True Colors

By P. D. Spyropoulos

After being pursued from Syria to Moscow, Abdullah Ocalan—leader of the PKK, the separatist guerrilla insurgency which seeks autonomy for Turkey's large Kurdish minority—has fled to Italy. The Italian courts have ruled that Italy's constitution prohibits Ocalan from being extradited to Turkey because he would most likely be subjected to the death penalty. The State Department and much of the American media have criticized Italy for upholding its constitution while overlooking a far more important consideration: that Turkey has reacted more like a militant Mideast backwater than a NATO ally.

Turkey commenced an assault against Italian interests in mid-November which was unprecedented in the history of the European Union. Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin warned, "we will carry out a review of our relations with Italy in all areas of the economy." A boycott was launched by the powerful Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry and has been backed by numerous state-owned and private firms. Turkey's first state bank, Ziraat Bankasi, declared that it would no longer grant loans for the purchase of tractors and other Italian farming equipment, and further eliminated the Italian company Olivetti from a $500,000 bid for photocopy machines.

Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir, disqualified Pirelli from a $200,000 contract to provide tires for city buses. Eight million dollars worth of electrical household contracts with Italian firms were scrapped, and imports of alcoholic beverages from Italy were halted altogether. The Turkish government has blacked out Italian television, and the Turkish telephone company has suspended all commercial ties with Italian companies. Even Turkey's association of travel agents, TURSAB, announced that Turkish tour operators had canceled their tours to Italy. Perhaps the best news coming from this boycott—at least for those critical of Turkey's human rights record and its international military adventurism—is that Turkey has announced a ban on military imports from Italy worth up to three hundred million dollars.

Fomented by the inflammatory statements of Turkey's leaders and its press, Turkish anti-Italian hysteria peaked into a frenzy in late November with protests taking place in several parts of the country. Italy's Foreign Ministry advised its nationals not to travel to Turkey and to "exercise caution", avoiding places in Turkey that are venues for large demonstrations. Fearing for the safety of Italian players, the European football association decided to postpone a game between the Turin-based Juventus soccer team and a Turkish team until December. When the two teams finally did play in Istanbul, more than 20,000 policemen guarded the Italian players against potential violence by Turkish fans—the gag that circulated amongst Europe's soccer fans: there were more policemen than fans.

Thousands have been protesting outside the Italian embassy in Ankara, shouting anti-Italian slogans, burning the Italian flag and torching an effigy of Ocalan hung from a scaffold. According to Anatolia news agency, nearly 130,000 demonstrators paraded along a three-mile street in the central city of Kayseri chanting "Italy terrorist" and burning Italian-made shoes and portraits of Ocalan. Other demonstrations were reported in Istanbul and Bursa, while in the Mediterranean town of Antalya the Italian honorary consul, Gaye Doganoglu, said she would quit her post. A mob had trampled Italian food for sale in a market and three Frenchmen and their interpreter, all members of a religious aid organization that were arrested when police sacked the headquarters of a pro-Kurdish party in Diyarbakir, were expelled.

In Bonn, Hasan Denizkurdu, Turkey's Minister of Justice, fumed that there would "no longer be relations" between Rome and Ankara unless Ocalan is handed over to Turkey, and warned that Turkey would consider Italy a "terrorist state" if it granted him political asylum. Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz further warned Italy that it is risking Turkey's "eternal enmity" and threatened that Italy's "mistake[s] will certainly have a very high price." On November 21st, Yilmaz attacked the Italian Government in front of 10,000 of his party supporters during a major congress of his Motherland Party. Yilmaz threatened that "the whole world should know that if Italy persists in this disgrace, Turkey will not leave it unanswered." Yilmaz's speech was greeted with chants of "Damn Italy" and thunderous applause.

Italy's Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, responded that he would not bow to "economic blackmail", and characterized Turkey's acts as "illegal" and in violation of international conventions. Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini denounced the anti-Italian frenzy as "an aggression against all of Europe." What concerned many European leaders is that it may have been instigated to deflect attention from Yilmaz's own domestic political woes; after a series of government scandals involving underworld connections and corruption charges, Yilmaz's government fell on November 25th after losing a confidence vote in the Turkish Parliament.

Since Ocalan's arrest, two Kurds have died in police custody and more than 3,000 people have been detained during a nationwide witch hunt of supporters of Turkey's main legal Kurdish party, HADEP. Police raids on its offices began after relatives of prisoners on hunger strikes gathered at party centers nationwide to join the fast. Television pictures showed right-wing militants beating party members as they were being escorted into police detention, and a retired teacher and HADEP member died as a result of blows from extremists who seized him from police custody in the western town of Izmit. The Turkish Government has sent 30,000 troops to crack down on the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, in the eastern Tunceli province, a region that is currently under the emergency rule of a Turkish military governor.

This is but the latest response in Turkey's 70-year-old campaign to silence, assimilate or wipe out its sizable Kurdish minority in a reign of terror that has made Pinochet's Chile look almost benign by comparison. According to a 1995 U.S. State Department human rights report, over 3,000 Kurdish villages have been torched or otherwise destroyed by Turkish security forces, displacing an estimated 1 to 3 million Kurds. Many believe that this is part of a campaign to not only crush the Kurdish separatist movement but to destroy Kurdish identity itself by ethnically cleansing the Kurds en masse from their ancestral homeland.

Human rights groups have long grieved that, in Turkey, journalists, writers, poets, students, businessmen, religious leaders, human rights activists and other dissidents sympathetic to the Kurdish cause are routinely subjected to torture, imprisonment and assassination. The International Pen disclosed that Turkey had more writers in jail than any nation on earth. In March of 1996, The New York Times cited Turkey as the country leading the world in imprisoned journalists ahead of China and Syria, prompting Amnesty International to call Turkey "one of the world's most dangerous countries in which to pursue a career in journalism."

The claim currently being made by the Turkish Government that Ocalan and the PKK are responsible for 30,000 deaths becomes all the more preposterous given the bone chilling admissions leaked by the Turkish government earlier this year in order to discredit a prior administration. In January, the prime minister's office revealed that Turkish officials spent $50 million on financing a shadow government of right-wing extremists, which included the infamous Gray Wolves and which perpetrated thousands of murders, kidnappings and bombings of Kurds and other dissidents. According to the Associated Press, the investigation concluded that "Turkish death squads carried out many of Turkey's 14,000 unsolved murders".

It is this horrific record that led Danielle Mitterrand, president of the France-Freedom Foundation and widow of the late French president Francois Mitterand, to declare that "if you judge Ocalan as a terrorist, you should also judge and impose sanctions for state terrorism represented by [Turkey' s] official army."

Yet the Italian imbroglio is just the latest swell in a rising tide of Turkish anti-European hostility following the rejection of Turkey's application for E.U. membership last year. In a step unprecedented for a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey stated in August that it would refuse to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling—which ordered Turkey to pay substantial damages to a Greek-Cypriot woman forced to leave her home as a result of Turkey's 1974 invasion and present occupation of northern Cyprus. No other member of the 40-nation Council of Europe has ever failed to comply with a compensation order from its human rights court, and such a breach of the underlying Human Rights Convention can result in the expulsion of the offending state.

Turkey has also rejected a resolution adopted by the Strasbourg-based European Union Parliament calling on Turkey's President Suleyman Demirel to exonerate Akin Birdal, who was recently sentenced to one year in prison for his activism as president of the Turkish Association for Human Rights. In May, Birdal was shot repeatedly in the chest and legs by two extremists linked to the military but managed to survive the attack. The resolution, endorsed on Thursday, also demanded that the Turkish authorities allow Birdal to travel abroad for medical treatment and emphasized the need for reform in the Turkish judicial system.

Perhaps the gesture most illustrative of the widening gap between the progressive, pluralistic European democracy that Italy represents, and the militaristic pariah Turkey continues to be, came from Benetton's Turkish partner, Bogazici Hazir Giyim. Mocking the Italian clothing company's "united colors" campaign, which encourages multicultural tolerance, Bogazici painted all of its 171 shops' windows black. Thus Europe has not only discovered that Turkey is "giving up on colors", as Bogazici declared—Europe has also discovered Turkey's true colors.

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