The defendant, sitting in a bulletproofed glass box, rambled on about the historic closeness of Turks and Kurds and the need to recognize Turkey’s vibrant, if somewhat flawed, democracy. His lawyers said little—their request to call witnesses was denied by the judges. One day the defense team did not even bother to show up. The prosecuting attorneys rarely asked questions of the defendant. This was left for the families of the “martyrs,” Turkish soldiers killed fighting rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A few dozen relatives were brought in every day to observe the trial and, when they felt like it, shout abuse at the defendent. Some of them would drape themselves in a Turkish flag before standing up and screaming.
“I am sorry,” said Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, after a woman blamed him for the death of her soldier husband. “I understand your pain.” Kurds waited for him to continue, but he said nothing else. Ocalan, who is responsible for leading the biggest Kurdish rebellion in Turkey’s history, did not bother to add that Kurdish families are also grieving. In fact, during the nine-day trial held in June on the island prison in the Sea of Marmara, he rarely mentioned what led Kurds to support the PKK.
In a desperate attempt to save his own life, the man whose fifteen-year battle is credited with raising Kurdish consciousness in Turkey and abroad, gave up the fight. He spoke of how Kurds and Turks fought together for Turkey’s independence, he commended Turkey’s democracy, he accused the Kurds of being feudal and backward. Every so often he reminded the court that Kurds did have grievances, but he did not articulate them. When asked whether the government was unjust to the Kurds, he was hard-pressed to come up with anything stronger than limitations on the use of the Kurdish language.
The judges were clearly impressed with Ocalan’s speech. In their verdict—guilty of treason, sentenced to hang—they often quoted from Ocalan’s defense statement. They had no arguments with what he said. Rather, they quoted him to prove the main point of the judgment: that there is not a Kurdish problem in Turkey, just a problem of terrorism.
Many kurds in Turkey were stunned by Ocalan’s statements. The fifty-one-year-old guerrilla chief was kicked out of Syria last year and spent about five months desperately seeking asylum in Europe. Turned down everywhere, he took refuge in the Greek Embassy in Kenya. When Turkish commandos tracked him down and brought him back to Turkey, Kurds demonstrated angrily all over the world. Even Kurdish critics of Ocalan—people opposed to violence or to his dictatorial leadership—thought Turkey would try to discredit the Kurdish cause by staging a humiliating trial of the man who had dedicated his life for the fight for Kurdish independence. The first person to sign up as Ocalan’s lawyer was Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu, a well-known Kurdish critic of Ocalan...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.