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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 17:35 GMT
Opinion divided over Ocalan's fate
pro-ocalan demonstration
Abdullah Ocalan still attracts strong support
By Chris Morris in Istanbul

The trial of the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan has finally moved to the place he always wanted to be - the international stage.

His lawyers have launched an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against the death sentence imposed by a Turkish court last year.

Nearly two years after he was captured by Turkish special forces in Kenya, Abdullah Ocalan still stirs strong emotions.

Thousands of rival demonstrators thronged the streets outside the European Court in Strasbourg.

Most of them were Ocalan's Kurdish supporters, but several thousand Turks also marched to demand that he be put to death.

Since his arrest, Ocalan has consistently called for peace and democratisation in Turkey, ordering his PKK fighters to leave Turkish territory and launch a political battle for Kurdish rights.

Occasional clashes

But his enemies do not believe he is genuine. They dismiss him as a terrorist and they have vowed to wipe the PKK out unless it surrenders completely.

PKK guerillas
The PKK is still active in some areas
There are still occasional clashes in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey between the armed forces and remnants of the PKK who have not withdrawn across the border into Iraq.

The south-east remains heavily militarised, and several provinces are still under emergency rule. But the level of violence is far lower than it has been for years.

So the focus is on the political process, and the PKK - acting on Ocalan's instructions - is now campaigning for a solution far less radical than it used to advocate.

Cultural rights

Talk of a separate state has gone, and the PKK is calling for a range of cultural rights for Turkey's Kurds, such as the right to broadcast or educate children in their own language.

anti-Ocalan march
Thousands of Turks marched to support Ocalan's death sentence
But powerful groups within the Turkish establishment, including most senior generals, believe that this is just a tactical move, and that the real goal has not changed.

They believe that accommodating even moderate Kurdish demands smacks of concessions to the PKK. They have vowed that Ocalan will not be allowed to win through politics what he failed to win on the battlefield.

The trouble is that the European Union is calling for similar reforms in Turkey. It has made it clear that granting Kurdish rights will be a pre-condition for membership talks.

It has also warned that Turkey's hopes of joining the EU would disappear completely if Ocalan is eventually executed.

Relations strained

Many Turks agree that killing Ocalan would be counter-productive, but the hearing in the European Court comes at a time when relations between Turkey and the EU are becoming increasingly strained again.

Abdullah Ocalan
Abdullah Ocalan says he has renounced violence
Turkish political leaders have recently accused Europe of arrogance in the terms it has set for membership negotiations.

Throwing the Ocalan case into the middle of that dispute could prove to be an explosive move.

Despite trying to reinvent himself as a born-again moderate, he remains an extremely divisive figure.

But for better or worse, Turkey's future relations with Europe revolve to a large extent around how the government in Ankara chooses to deal with him, and the problem he has come to represent.

News and background on Abdullah Ocalan

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21 Nov 00 | Europe
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