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Turkey: Ocalan's Apology Wins Little Sympathy

Imrali Island, Turkey; 2 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the trial of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan enters its third day, the Turkish press and public continues to expect that Ocalan will be found guilty and given the death penalty.

The trial, on the prison island of Imrali, began Monday with a surprise apology from Ocalan. Addressing the court and its gallery filled with relatives of Turkish soldiers killed in the PKK's 15-year armed struggle in Turkey's southeast, he expressed regret over their deaths.

He also said he wanted to cooperate with Turkish authorities to disarm the PKK and end the armed struggle. The remarks were carried by Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency.

However, his apology seems to have won him little sympathy in the press or among most citizens of Turkey. The comments were largely interpreted as an empty gesture, and as an attempt by Ocalan to escape the death penalty. Ocalan's call to disarm the PKK also went largely unnoticed by the media and public.

The reaction of Ugur Dundar, a commentator of the A-TV channel, was typical: "He [Ocalan] is not sincere," Dundar pronounced. Dundar then went on to say he could still remember how Ocalan's PKK rebels killed a baby in the southeast just a few years ago.

The reaction in the press to Ocalan's statements might not be simply an expression of widespread Turkish public attitudes. Any pro-PKK or pro-Kurdish pronouncements in the media are banned. Newspapers or broadcasters carrying anything that could be interpreted as favoring the PKK's position can be charged with advocating separatism or supporting terrorism.

The one segment of the population that does not share the widespread hostility toward Ocalan is the country's large minority of ethnic Kurds. Ahmet, a Kurdish waiter in the town of Mudanya where reporters have gathered to cover the trial, says he feels sorry for Ocalan. He says he too would have apologized to "save his skin."

Prosecutors are basing their case against Ocalan on the claim that he and his PKK are responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since 1984. Prosecutors also say Ocalan tried to establish a separate Kurdish state and used terrorism to achieve that goal.

Ocalan has denied that he advocated separatism and has said he favors a democratic solution within the boundaries of Turkey. But he admits he may have been responsible for some bloodshed in clashes between Turkish forces and the PKK.

The charges against Ocalan carry the death penalty, but Turkey has not executed anyone since the mid-1980s. Death sentences must first be approved by parliament, and the president can grant a reprieve.

While most of the Turkish public seems focused on Ocalan's role as a terrorist and the pain of relatives of dead soldiers, it has largely ignored the issue of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. Some 10 million to 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, mostly in the country's southeast. But the Kurdish language is banned in Turkish media and schools.

Foreign governments and observers say they're hoping Ocalan's capture will shed light on the plight of the Kurds and force the Turkish government to seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem.

In a sign of possible progress, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel today appealed to Kurdish rebels to lay down their arms and surrender to Turkish justice. He made the appeal in the mass circulation daily Sabah.

The PKK has said it may support Ocalan's call for an end to armed conflict. But the group has not said explicitly if or when it would lay down its arms.

Most analysts, though, are not optimistic that the Kurdish problem will be solved anytime soon. Akin Birdal, the head of the Turkish Association for Human Rights, says a new coalition government, which includes a hardline nationalist party, may make it more difficult to start a dialogue with the Kurds.

"Such a possibility is not visible. On the contrary, it seems this will become even more difficult. This is a human rights and democracy issue. But the program of the new government has no word on this issue. And I don't know what the future political climate will bring about."

Professor Hasan Koeni of Ankara University adds that granting any cultural rights to Kurds could lead to further demands that threaten the country's territorial integrity. He says other countries hold the same view toward their own minorities. "That's why," he says, "countries, such as Iran with its large Azeri minority, do not intend to grant minorities language or other cultural rights."