Ocalan Urges Turkey to End Ban on Kurds

IMRALI ISLAND–Turkey–June 23 (Reuters) – Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan said on Wednesday Turkey could end separatist violence by granting Kurds cultural rights but denied he was bargaining for his life in offering to negotiate a peace.

Ocalan could be hanged for orchestrating the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) campaign for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

"Whatever damage I have done then let me be of that much use," Ocalan told the court in the Imrali prison island. "The issue is not saving me. There are things I have to do."

"There are 5,000 people ready to sacrifice themselves for me. This is a terrible thing. They could blow themselves up anywhere in the most dangerous ways," he said.

The Kurdish leader also urged Turkey to end restrictions on Kurdish language education and broadcasting that he said fueled the rebel cause. It was the first time since his trial began on May 31 that he had touched on such issues.

"Even the smallest obstacle is enough to spark these uprisings. The most important of these is the language ban. It provokes this uprising," an animated Ocalan said from inside his bullet-proof glass cage in the courtroom.

He gesticulated and fixed his stare on the lawyers–observers and judges in the purpose-built court. But he later appeared to doze off as his defense lawyers took over–challenging the trial on procedural grounds.

Turkey bans education and television in Kurdish. It also restricts Kurdish political expression through laws against "provoking hatred on the basis of ethnicity." Until recently the Kurds’ very existence as a distinct ethnic group was denied.

"The path to a solution is the development of Kurdish as a private and broadcast language," Ocalan said.

Ankara says all its citizens are equal and fears such steps would be the first on a perilous slope leading to the creation of a separate Kurdish state in its southeastern provinces.

Ocalan said such concerns were baseless.

"Don’t think this is a dream…Linguistic and cultural differences must be comfortably developed within a unitary state," he said. "This would bring us great unity and make us a great state."

Ocalan–captured in Kenya in February–has offered to work for a solution to the conflict if the court spares his life and talks with him. But the offer has always been accompanied by warnings of fiercer rebel violence if it is rejected.

Ocalan–interviewed by an Italian newspaper through one of his lawyers–warned Turkey of a blood bath if he was hanged.

"If capital punishment is inflicted there will be negative consequences–a lot of blood will flow," Ocalan told the Rome daily La Repubblica.

PKK leaders still at liberty say they back Ocalan’s call and also warn of intensified conflict if his offer is spurned.

Such veiled threats will only add to the likelihood that Turkey’s establishment will reject any offer to deal with a man widely despised here as a "terrorist" and murderer.

Ocalan said Turkey had neglected and oppressed its Kurdish minority–raising PKK numbers from 60 when it took up arms in 1984 to a current strength he put at 10,000.

A verdict in the trial is expected by the end of the month.

Turkey’s Western allies are closely following the trial–which a Council of Europe report says is fair. A German minister warned that executing Ocalan could harm Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.

The charges against Ocalan carry the death penalty. If such a sentence were to be handed out–it would have to be upheld on appeal and then ratified by parliament. Turkey has not carried out an execution since 1984.

Ocalan’s lawyers said later that pro-death penalty commen’s by two leaders in the government coalition had prejudiced the trial. They also said that the court should have heard testimony from Kurdish families affected by the conflict.

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