“He will be hanged, with or without a trial.” That’s the view of a young lottery vendor on Istanbul’s Taksim square. It’s indicative of public expectations in Turkey as the country prepares for the high-profile trial of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Meanwhile, Turkey’s TV channels regularly show interviews with angry relatives of victims of the war with Kurdish rebels. One handicapped former commando says he wants to see Ocalan suffer, adding “a fast execution” would be too good for him.
While the treason trial against Ocalan is due to open Monday on the prison island of Imrali off Istanbul, almost everybody seems to be sure about the verdict.
After failing to find a refuge, Ocalan was captured last February by Turkish commandos in Kenya and brought to Turkey. As public enemy number one, he is being charged for attempting to split Turkey and establish a separate Kurdish state. He is also being held responsible for the death of thousands of people during the guerilla war he has been leading since 1984. Ankara claims that some 30,000 have been killed in the last 14 years. Most of them are said to be Kurdish rebels.
Speaking to a selected group of the Turkish society’s elite in Istanbul, President Suleyman Demirel said that Turkey would not allow PKK fighters based in northern Iraq to enter into Turkey and kill civilians and government troops. Demirel gave his view of the PKK:
“Is this a liberation movement? It is not possible to conduct a liberation movement through terror. Besides, this is no liberation movement. This is a blunt and open crime.”
The PKK, for its part, claims that the Turkish army has burnt to the ground hundreds of Kurdish villages in the southeast of the country and killed or forcibly deported thousands of Kurds suspected of supporting the PKK. Mehmet Balci of the Amsterdam-based ERGK, the PKK’s political arm, spoke recently with RFE/RL. He said that the conflict with Turkish authorities and troops started 14 years ago because Kurds were forced to take arms to “defend themselves” against Ankaras denial of Kurdish rights.
Balci says: “The PKK and Ocalan are today no more terrorists than [Nelson] Mandela and [Yassir] Arafat were terrorists in the past. How can one talk of murder if there are 30,000 dead? In fact, this is a war. The PKK is not the source, but the result of the war. The Kurdish problem remained unresolved, it was denied and the Kurds were discriminated against. As a result, the awareness of the Kurds developed and they were forced to take arms because all other ways were closed.” Turkey has a large Kurdish minority of some 10-15 million people, but the Kurdish language is banned in Turkey’s schools and media. Turkey considers itself as a strictly unitarian state and refuses minority rights as a potential threat to the countrys territorial integrity.
Since Ocalan’s capture in February, many bombings and other terrorist attacks have taken place in Istanbul and other Turkish cities to protest his trial. Dozens of people have also been killed in recent clashes between PKK rebels and security forces in southeast Turkey. Security forces have been put on high alert and it is feared that next Monday, as the trial opens, terrorist actions will reach a peak.
On Thursday, tabloid newspapers reported on a suspected bomb attack in the small town of Mudanya, the closest port to Imrali island. Participants at the court and reporters have to come first to Mudanya to wait to be brought to Imrali by special police boats, if allowed.
Until now, the number and size of terrorist attacks have been relatively limited. With Ocalan standing trial for treason, Ankara seems confident that it is about to eliminate the PKK as the main threat to its territorial integrity.
Niyazi Bulgan, one of the 104-member group of lawyers to defend Ocalan, tells RFE/RL that the charges are based on article 125 of the Turkish penal code on separatism. But Bulgan says that Ocalan himself has repeatedly advocated a “peaceful solution” of the Kurdish issue within the boundaries of Turkey. Bulgan says: “He (Ocalan) himself will answer accusations about separatism and we will evaluate them separately. It is very clear from our talks [with Ocalan] that he is not in favor of dividing Turkey. He favors a free coexistence in a common motherland. He said that especially since 1993 as the unilateral ceasefire offers were made, he frequently repeated that he does not have any plans to split Turkey.”
Turkey has categorically refused to consider any talks with the PKK, which it considers as a terrorist organization.
(First published on RFE/RL website May 31, 1999)