Turkey begins treason trial of Kurdish leader Ocalan

Rebel's guerrilla force blamed for 30,000 deaths in bid for ethnic homeland


ISTANBUL, Turkey -- In a legal and political confrontation likely to attract worldwide attention, the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is to be tried for treason in a Turkish court beginning today.

From 1984 until his capture in February, Ocalan headed a guerrilla force that has been fighting to establish a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. The authorities call it a band of terrorists and blame Ocalan for the more than 30,000 deaths during the war. Among the dead are more than 5,000 Turkish soldiers and security officers.

Government leaders, backed by the news media, have for years denounced Ocalan as a brutal killer dedicated to sowing chaos and ultimately splitting Turkey apart. In most of the country he is an intensely hated figure, and there seems little doubt that he will be found guilty.

This month, Ocalan's top lieutenant, Semdin Sakik, was sentenced to death, and in all probability, Ocalan will be sentenced to hang. But it is uncertain whether such a sentence would be carried out. Death sentences in Turkey must be confirmed by Parliament and the president, and there have been no executions here since 1984. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit opposes the death penalty.

Ecevit has said he will seek to change the composition of the three-judge panel that will try Ocalan by replacing its military member with a civilian. When the trial opens today, there may be a motion to postpone it until Parliament can approve such a change.

The trial will be held on the remote prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, where Ocalan is the sole inmate.

"Ocalan will only be able to communicate with the chief judge through a microphone," said one of his lawyers, Ercan Kanar. "He will not be able to hear his own lawyers or anything else in the courtroom."

There are at least 10 million Kurds among Turkey's 65 million people, most of them with roots in the southeastern provinces, which have been shaken by violence for the past 15 years. Some say they have been oppressed under Turkish rule, but the government insists that they are granted the same rights as other citizens.

The Turkish authorities say they have all but wiped out Ocalan's guerrilla force, the Kurdistan Workers Party. Although they report fatal clashes every few days, they say the capture of Ocalan has been a devastating blow to the rebellion.

Many Kurds in the southeast disagree.

"This movement is not going to be finished by arresting or executing one person," said a Kurdish businessman from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir who spoke on condition of anonymity. "One is going, but thousands are coming."

Pub Date: 5/31/99

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