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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kurds Decry Ocalan Death Sentence

IMRALI ISLAND, Turkey -- A Turkish court brushed aside pleas for leniency and condemned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to hang, saying his 15-year guerrilla struggle led to the deaths of "babies, children, women and the elderly."

The families of slain Turkish soldiers and their lawyers burst into the national anthem and waved blood-red Turkish flags after Judge Turgut Okyay read the brief statement announcing the verdict.

European states quickly urged Turkey not to send Ocalan to the gallows and some observers warned that hanging the guerrilla leader could jeopardize Turkey's goal of entering the European Union.

About 1,000 Kurds gathered in central Moscow on Tuesday after news of the court's verdict. The protesters chanted "Turkey f terrorist" and set fire to Turkish flags.

Russia joined European calls for Turkey not to execute Ocalan. "We know that although capital punishment has not been abolished by legislation in Turkey, that country has not carried out any death sentences since 1984," Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin said at a news briefing.

"We hope that the high principles of humanity will not be breached in the case of Ocalan either," he said.

In the Turkish city of Istanbul, a 17-year-old Kurdish girl doused herself with cologne and set herself on fire to protest the verdict, and several hundred Kurds protested in front of the Turkish Embassy in Athens, Greece.

Death sentences in Turkey are automatically appealed, a process that could take months. If the appeals court approves of the sentence, it must also be endorsed by parliament and President Suleyman Demirel.

There has been some speculation that Turkey might drag its feet in deciding whether to hang Ocalan until after the country hosts an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in November. European leaders apparently have hinted that they might boycott the meeting if Turkey hangs Ocalan.

The three-judge panel found Ocalan guilty of treason and separatism for leading a guerrilla war for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey. Turks blame Ocalan for all 37,000 deaths in the conflict. The overwhelming majority of the casualties were Kurdish guerrillas and civilians.

"By inciting and leading the armed terrorist organization that he founded ... [Ocalan] carried out acts to separate parts of the territory which is under the sovereignty of the state," Okyay said.

Okyay rejected a request from Ocalan's lawyers to commute the sentence to life, saying that Ocalan's actions "indiscriminately killed thousands of innocent people, babies, children, women and the elderly." Although no one has been executed in Turkey for 15 years, there is strong public pressure to hang Ocalan.

Ocalan, 50, looked somber but said nothing as Okyay read out the sentence. He turned to the door of his bulletproof and bombproof glass cabin, waved to his 12 lawyers and left the room.

The trial has been extremely emotional for many Turks, who regard Ocalan as a terrorist who wants to divide the state along ethnic lines. At Mudanya, the closest port to the prison island of Imrali where Ocalan's trial was held, families of war dead and injured soldiers draped themselves in Turkish flags and waved nooses in the air.

"I felt honored," said Ibrahim Cikikci,whose left leg was torn off in 1996 when he stepped on a mine in the eastern province of Tunceli while on a military patrol.

"Now, my martyred comrades can sleep in peace," he added.

Kurds mourned the verdict against the man militants call "President Apo." Apo is a diminutive of Abdullah.

There were no reports of violence in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, the scene of brutal fighting during the 15-year insurgency. Many analysts have said Kurdish groups are likely to refrain from violence until the appeals process is exhausted.

Earlier Tuesday, the seven top commanders of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, said in a statement that the Kurdish people "will warn the world that this dangerous decision could engulf not only Turkey and Kurdistan but the entire region in flames."

Mizgin Sen, a PKK spokeswoman in London, warned that "Turkey's decision will lead to an intensification of the war."

Ocalan throughout his trial had offered to fight for peace if spared the gallows, but has warned of massive bloodshed if he is hanged.

"I am repeating my call, the determined promise I made at the onset, for a fair and honorable peace and brotherhood in line with the democratic republic," Ocalan told the court in his final statement Tuesday. "The future of the country lies with peace not war."

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978. The group at first called for a Kurdish state, but later scaled back its demands and began calling for autonomy in southeastern Turkey, home to about half of Turkey's 12 million Kurds.