Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, who spent his life fighting the Turkish state, said at the opening of his treason trial today that he is "willing to work for peace" with the Turkish government.
Ocalan, 51, founder of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party, asked that his life be spared so that he may "serve the Turkish state." He warned that if his appeal is not heeded, his followers will plunge the country into further violence.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Ocalan, whose rebel group has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey since 1984. Turkey blames Ocalan for the deaths of more than 30,000 people during the insurgency.
According to human rights groups, the rebels' victims include thousands of Kurdish civilians allied with Turkish authorities, including women and children. In their battle with the insurgents, Turkish security forces have emptied thousands of Kurdish villages and displaced more than a half-million Kurds, according to reliable estimates, bringing harsh condemnation from human rights groups.
Speaking in his defense for more than two hours, Ocalan said he could "bring down my men from the mountains in three months" if the government accepts his offer to negotiate "a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem."
Ocalan also apologized to the families of the estimated 5,000 Turkish soldiers killed in the insurgency, which he organized and led before his capture by Turkish agents in Kenya in February. "I share the grief of the families of the martyrs, and I promise here that I will from now on work for the establishment of peace," he said from inside a bulletproof glass cubicle, facing victims' relatives who were swathed in crimson Turkish flags and displayed pictures of their slain loved ones.
In a 139-page indictment, prosecutors accused Ocalan of multiple crimes, ranging from ordering the deaths of foreign tourists to running drug-smuggling and extortion rackets. Ocalan declined to respond to the charges, saying, "I did not create the Kurdish problem. It existed long before me." He said the root of the conflict lay in Turkey's failure to grant its estimated 12 million Kurds political and cultural rights, along with "Western plots to dismantle and weaken Turkey."
Ocalan's testimony startled many of his supporters and accusers alike. A rebel sympathizer interviewed by telephone in the largely Kurdish-populated city of Diyarbakir said: "I could not believe my ears. He is a coward and a traitor and not worthy of the thousands of Kurdish lives that were sacrificed in his name."
A senior Turkish official called Ocalan's offer to negotiate a settlement of the conflict "blackmail, pure and simple. We . . . will not negotiate with a terrorist."
Since his capture, Ocalan has been held in solitary confinement on the prison island Imrali in Turkey's Sea of Marmara, just south of Istanbul. His trial is being conducted under stringent security at a converted movie theater on the island, where a former Turkish prime minister was hanged on treason charges in 1961. Ocalan declared today that he had not been tortured or maltreated in captivity.
More than 100 people, including Western journalists and diplomats, who traveled to Imrali to attend today's hearing were stripped of their jewelry, fingerprinted and subjected to retinal scans before being permitted to embark at this mainland port.
Even as Ocalan called on his guerrilla comrades to lay down their arms today, rebel forces clashed with Turkish troops in Hakkari province, which borders Iraq, reinforcing widespread reports that the guerrillas are no longer obeying their imprisoned leader. Ten rebels and one soldier were reported killed.