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Ocalan case: Triumph or test of Turkish policy on Kurds?
This story was originally written for CNN.com in 1999 as part of the coverage of the trial of Abdullah Ocalan.
(CNN) -- When Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested and then tried on a prison island some 35 miles south of Istanbul, it was a moment of triumph for Turks: here was Turkey's most-wanted man being humbled before a court whose authority he shunned.
But for Kurdish nationalists, Ocalan's trial offered an ironic opportunity. To them it was a chance to present Turkey as a repressive state that crushed their dream of self-determination.
Turkey is home to more than half the world's estimated 25 million Kurds. Others are scattered throughout the rugged reaches of Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Kurds see themselves as the largest ethnic group without a homeland, a people promised nationhood in the past, only to have it seized from their grasp. They were not officially recognized as a people in Turkey until 1991.
In 1978, left-wing Kurds under the direction of Ocalan founded the Marxist PKK, an organization whose goal was autonomy for Turkey's Kurds. The government beat the PKK to the brink of annihilation during the early 1980s.
But Ocalan fled to Syria, where in 1984 he and his supporters regrouped and declared war on the Turkish government.
The PKK launched a violent campaign aimed at weakening the government, following the examples of Peru's Shining Path and Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. PKK rebels allegedly have slaughtered thousands of Kurdish villagers who refused to support their cause, especially school teachers whom they blamed for spreading Turkish propaganda. They have ambushed police and soldiers and claimed responsibility for numerous bombings across the country, including tourist destinations.
In response, Turkey cracked down harshly. Local governors were granted sweeping powers to exterminate PKK influence in their provinces.
Arrest draws backlash
After Ocalan's arrest February 15, 1999 outside the Greek Embassy in Kenya, Turkey reveled in its unexpected victory. But the celebration was subdued quickly by Kurdish uprisings across Europe. Almost immediately, Europeans, who have in the past criticized Turkey's human rights record, issued calls for a fair trial.
Ankara had inflamed European skepticism about the trial by barring international observers from the courtroom, limiting Ocalan's access to his legal team and announcing he would be tried not by a criminal tribunal, but by a State Security Court, a panel usually convened to hear cases dealing with national security.
Turks were aghast when Italy refused to extradite Ocalan when he appeared in Rome in November 1998. After all, they asked, how could a Europe that prided itself on respect for justice protect a known "terrorist"?
The court's verdict of a death sentence for Ocalan has clouded prospects for reconciliation between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government. One thing appears fairly certain: the long-running dispute over Kurdish rights will not end with the case of Abdullah Ocalan.
Relations warming between former enemies Greece and Turkey
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