Rebel leader pleads for his life at treason trial

 

The Kurdish rebel leader, Mr Abdullah Ocalan, on trial for his life, apologised yesterday to families of soldiers killed by his separatist guerrillas and said he would work for peace if spared the gallows.

Turkish television showed Mr Ocalan (51), dressed in a brown suit and grey shirt without tie, speaking from a bullet-proof glass box on the first day of his trial for treason on Imrali prison island. His hair was markedly thinner and he appeared to have lost weight during three months in prison.

The Turkish public had last seen him after his spectacular capture by special forces in Kenya, when he was paraded, handcuffed, before the red Turkish flag. Since then pressure has grown for the first execution in Turkey since 1984.

"I share the pain of those families of martyrs," Mr Ocalan said. He turned towards a row of women sitting in the courtroom, Turkish flags on their laps, cradling portraits of sons and husbands killed by Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"I am sorry," he added. One woman raised her portrait high above her head. He then looked slowly away.

"I think I ought to live, for peace and for brotherhood," he said.

"I promise I will work to stop the spilling of blood and for peace . . . I want to express a desire and determination to work in the service of the state for peace and brotherhood." As Mr Ocalan spoke from his box flanked by two soldiers, there were emotional scenes a few miles away at the mainland port of Mudanya, where mothers of the "martyrs" gathered.

Several elderly women, among dozens at the quayside waving Turkish flags and holding portraits of their sons, fainted as they watched Mr Ocalan in brief television clips of the trial.

Mr Ocalan stands accused over the deaths of more than 29,000 people in a 14-year-old conflict in the mainly Kurdish south-east. The violence imposes an enormous burden on the economy, swelling public deficits, and stands in the way of democratic reform.

Imrali, a small island in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul, has been sealed off by the military since Mr Ocalan arrived as the only inmate in February. Mr Ocalan said he had not been mistreated.

Journalists attending the trial are not allowed to transmit reports until they leave the island at the end of the day's proceedings. All information in the course of the day comes from state television and the state-run Anatolian news agency.

The general mood in Turkey is not likely to warm to Mr Ocalan's offer of help. There is also no guarantee Mr Ocalan could control PKK guerrillas still fighting in the rugged mountains of the

mainly Kurdish south-east. "Imrali will be Apo's grave," screamed one group of women at Mudanya, using the nickname favoured by friends and foes alike.

Mr Ocalan's capture crowned a vigorous diplomatic campaign that had driven him from his base in Syria to Russia, Italy and Greece before he sought refuge in the Greek embassy in Kenya.

The trial will most likely end with one of the three tribunal judges snapping his pencil - a symbolic act in the passing of a death sentence in Turkey.

No one has been executed here since 1984. But after the success of nationalists in April elections - a success that in part reflected popular feeling over Mr Ocalan - parliament would seem unlikely to spare the rebel leader.

It may, however, change the constitution to remove the military member from the three-judge panel. The European Court of Human Rights has already found the presence of the officer casts doubt on the impartiality of the court.

The military believes it has all but crushed the PKK, but operations continue in the south-east.

Mr Ocalan's capture sparked a spate of bombings, but the PKK is far from the height of its strength in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russia's Foreign Ministry called for humanity and European standards of justice in the trial of Mr Ocalan.

"Russia hopes that high standards of humanity will be fully observed," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "The trial should take place with full observation of all international and European standards of jurisprudence."

The rebel leader spent some time in Russia last October after Syria evicted him from his longtime base in Damascus, and he may have returned to Russia later, although reports are contradictory. However, Russia refused Mr Ocalan's request for official asylum. About 60 Kurdish supporters rallied in front of the Turkish embassy in Moscow yesterday, carrying pictures of Mr Ocalan and shouting anti-Turkish slogans.