Ocalan on trial, in a box, on ghost island

IT SEEMS like the plot of a thriller. A terrorist leader is on trial for his life, under security so tight that an entire island has been emptied of people and sealed off to make way for him. During hearings, he is forced to sit in a bullet-proof glass box that can withstand the blast from a hand grenade.

But this is what is happening in Turkey, where Abdullah Ocalan, the man behind almost 15 years of bloody Kurdish rebellion, is being tried by the Turkish state he once waged war against.

The tiny island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, which according to local legend is haunted by the ghost of a former Prime Minister hanged there after he was deposed in a military coup, has become Mr Ocalan's Elba. Every 50 yards along the coast stands an armed soldier, his face hidden behind a mask. Frigates patrol the surrounding waters, helicopters circle constantly overhead. No one is allowed within three miles.

More than 200 inmates were moved from the open prison on Imrali in February to make way for Mr Ocalan, who has been the sole occupant ever since. A holiday camp for Ministry of Justice bureaucrats, the only other facility on the island, has become a temporary home for the judges and prosecutors involved in the trial. The trial has transformed Mudanya, the nearest port on the Turkish mainland, as well. A small town of retirement homes also famous for its olive oil, Mudanya has been invaded by more than 250 foreign journalists, and the "mothers of the martyrs", relatives of soldiers killed by Mr Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who have come to demand his death. At times the protesters have turned angrily on Western reporters, whom they believe to be pro-PKK.

For three months, Mr Ocalan has been in solitary confinement. According to his lawyers, there is a camera in each of the four corners of his tiny cell, and a guard watches constantly through a window in the door.

On Monday he emerged blinking into his glass cage, in a courtroom packed with diplomats, journalists and the "mothers of the martyrs". To be there, they had had to rise at dawn to get through incredibly rigorous security checks. Their fingerprints were checked and their retinas scanned, both before boarding a ferry to Imrali and on arrival. After all this, said a Western diplomat who has attended some of the hearings, the trial itself is strangely free of tension. "Abdullah Ocalan has a curious lack of charisma for a man who has led people into a war," he says. "He seemed rather pathetic really, even slightly unhinged."

Mr Ocalan has certainly failed to stick to the script. Instead of defying the Turkish state he fought for so long, he has asked for the chance to serve it, and stunned the court on the first morning with an offer of peace in return for his life.

His performances in court have been wildly erratic. At one moment he has sounded magnanimous, saying of the peace offer: "I'm not saying this to save myself. I want to prevent the death of a single soldier, a single PKK member." At the next he has been threatening, warning that if he is hanged, the number of dead could rise to 100,000. "I might not be worth a dime," he has said. "But they say 5,000 suicide bombers are ready to die for me." He accepted general responsibility for all the PKK's actions until the moment of his capture, only to deny responsibility for a number of specific incidents he was questioned about.

Privately, Turkish officials suggest the intense security is as much to prevent reprisals from the states Mr Ocalan has given evidence against as to frustrate any escape attempt. And here Mr Ocalan has certainly been obliging to the Turkish authorities, readily testifying that several of Turkey's enemies abroad helped the PKK, including arch-rival Greece. Mr Ocalan has even made confused accusations that Britain tried to exploit his rebels against Turkey.

But while the Turkish press gleefully reports Mr Ocalan's "revelations", the question of whether his peace offer is genuine is unlikely to be tested. Turkey has rejected any talks with the PKK, and while the rebels have endorsed Mr Ocalan's offer, they have ignored his call to lay down their arms. It looks as though the possibility of peace will be just another ghost for Imrali.