Kurd hero Ocalan faces death in Turkey's `trial of the century'

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The Independent Online
THIS IS the day Turkey has been waiting for. Today Abdullah Ocalan, the man who has led the 14-year Kurdish rebellion against the state, will sit humiliated in a glass cage before a Turkish court, on trial for his life.

"This is the trial of the century," said Ercal Kaner, one of Mr Ocalan's lawyers. "It will determine the destiny of the Turks and the Kurds."

Mr Ocalan is accused of trying to break up the Turkish state and of causing the deaths of 30,000 in fighting between security forces and his Kurdish Workers Party (PKK)in an attempt to win Kurdish autonomy in south-east Turkey.

The PKK is loathed by most Turks, and the public is baying for Mr Ocalan's blood, spurred on by a fiercely nationalistic press. Turkiye newspaper recently published a doctored photo of Mr Ocalan with blood dripping from his mouth.

But to many Kurds Mr Ocalan is a hero and the nearest they have to a national leader.

Kurds are denied minority rights in Turkey. Kurdish language broadcasting is illegal, and the language cannot be taught in schools. Kurdish communities across the world rioted and occupied embassies when Mr Ocalan was seized in Kenya by Turkish special forces in February. How they will react to the sight of Mr Ocalan under the shadow of the noose remains to be seen.

Most people expect Mr Ocalan will be condemned to death. Under Turkish law, that sentence would have to be confirmed by a vote of parliament.

But fears are also being raised over whether Mr Ocalan will get a fair trial. One of the best-known lawyers acting for the rebel leader says he will not attend the trial in protest at what he says is unfair state pressure.

"They are preparing a show trial," says Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu. "From the start the state has failed to carry out its own laws guaranteeing a fair trial." Mr Ocalan's lawyers say they have been refused confidential meetings with their client and proper access to legal documents. They have repeatedly been attacked by furious public mobs, and there are even claims they have been beaten by police.

The rebel's lawyers will ask for the trial to be postponed today so a military judge can be removed from the panel of three trying the case.

Doubts have been raised over the impartiality of Turkey's military judges, and the government has indicated it is willing to change the make-up of the court, a sign of how Turkey's anxiety that the trial is seen to be fair.

The Turkish authorities say the trial is the last nail in the coffin for the Kurdish insurgency. The military claims it has all but wiped out the PKK. Since Mr Ocalan was captured, Turkish troops have repeatedly crossed into Kurdish- controlled North Iraq, hunting down the guerrillas. The authorities are taking no chances with security. The trial will take place on the heavily guarded island prison where Mr Ocalan has been the sole inmate since his capture. The glass cage he will sit in can withstand the blast from a hand grenade.

The PKK vowed to fight on when Mr Ocalan was captured, and struck into the hearts of western Turkish cities with bomb attacks as it has rarely done before. The organisation threatened attacks on tourist resorts and warned tourists to stay away from Turkey.

But recently the attacks have abated, apparently in response to a message from Mr Ocalan urging the PKK to lay down its arms until the mood of Turkey`s new government was established.

That new government was formed last week - and it includes a far-right party that campaigned on a promise to see Mr Ocalan hang.