The case of Ocalan is ours too

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On my first visit to Istanbul, I happened to be in the Grand Bazaar when a terrorist bomb went off, injuring dozens of people. I did not find out until later that at least two of the victims had died in a blast which was held to be the work of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party. A couple of years later, on a balmy summer evening, I was sitting with friends in a garden on the Bosphorus, watching plump white mulberries drop from a gnarled tree on to the table where we were eating supper. News came through of a suicide bombing in mainland Turkey, in which many more had been killed, and some of the journalists present picked up phones to call their news desks.

The reaction was shocking: a big football match was being played that night, part of the Euro '96 tournament, and no one in London showed much interest in a terrorist atrocity committed by the PKK in faraway Anatolia. As a result, I have few illusions about either the PKK or the West's occasional spasms of interests in Turkish affairs. Yet it is clear that the Kurds, whose captured leader Abdullah Ocalan faces the death penalty in Turkey, have a justified sense of grievance. Divided be- tween three hostile nations, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, their culture has been ruthlessly suppressed. "Only the Kurds sympathise with the Kurds," a friend in Istanbul, a Turk with impeccably liberal credentials, told me on Friday.

In Britain, it is rarely the Kurds' struggle for autonomy or the plight of Turkish dissidents that catches our attention. We are more engaged by the experience of Billy Hayes, the American whose account of his detention in a Turkish jail was the inspiration for Alan Parker's searing film, Midnight Express. The Turkish government, which has warned foreign countries and human- rights organisations not to interfere in the Ocalan trial, is aware that Western attitudes to the East are informed by a potent mixture of ignorance and prejudice whose roots stretch back to the Crusades.

In spite of this unfortunate history, there are urgent reasons to be concerned about the fate of Mr Ocalan. While the exact circumstances of his arrest in Kenya nearly two weeks ago have not yet been established, it looks as though he was drugged and kidnapped. Until Thursday, he was denied access to lawyers. When two lawyers were permitted to visit Mr Ocalan on the prison island of Imrali, they were allowed to question him only about his health. The lawyers were attacked by a stone-throwing mob, who chanted "the island will be Ocalan's grave". My friend described the atmosphere on Friday as "disgustingly patriotic and self-congratulatory".

The death penalty has not been enforced in Turkey since 1984, leading Amnesty International to classify it as a de facto abolitionist state. But there are fears that Mr Ocalan's notoriety, and the significance of his capture as a symbol of the defeat of the Kurdish separatist cause, means he will be hanged. He faces trial by a semi-military tribunal, prompting Amnesty to remind the Turks that the proceedings will be judged by international human- rights standards which have been ratified by the Turkish parliament.

Mr Ocalan's 36-page "confession" was made in circumstances condemned last week by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The committee, which was set up to monitor compliance with the European convention on torture, denounced incommunicado detention, of the type imposed on Mr Ocalan, as the single most important factor in the continuing use of torture. During visits to Turkey, ECPT delegates have found instruments of torture in police stations. As recently as 1996, they described torture as "widespread ... a common occurrence" and reported finding electric shock equipment, as well as a device for suspending victims by the arms, in Istanbul police headquarters.

Against this ominous background, the campaign to ensure a fair trial for Mr Ocalan is gathering pace. Last week a Labour MP, Denis MacShane, wrote to Turkey's ambassador in London, urging his government not to hang the Kurdish rebel leader. Pointing out that the prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, is well-known for his translations of T S Eliot, Mr MacShane quoted Murder in the Cathedral: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason". If Mr Ecevit wishes to end the undeclared civil war in his country, and repair Turkey's reputation for brutality, I would also commend to him Eliot's assertion, in Four Quartets, that "right action is freedom/ From past and future also".

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