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Ocalan Affecting Turkish Town

March 1, 1999

MUDANYA, Turkey (AP) _ Imrali Island is only a hazy, mist-shrouded silhouette on the horizon, but it looms larger every day for the people of this quiet, olive-growing coastal town.

Their little port is the jumping-off point for the tightly guarded prison island in the Sea of Marmara where Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is the sole inmate, guarded by elite commandos as he awaits trial on treason charges.

Mudanya’s townspeople fear terror attacks, violent protests and perhaps a lost way of life as a result of his presence 20 miles offshore.

``This used to be a peaceful place,″ said olive farmer Ismail Koron, 50, as he sipped bitter tea at an outdoor cafe overlooking Mudanya’s jetty, now under guard by paramilitary police. A military helicopter buzzed overhead, and a sleek coast guard cutter was moored at the dock.

Muammar Aksungar, whose kebab stand is only steps from blue-and-white police barricades sealing off the jetty, said his business had fallen by half since Ocalan’s arrival.

``It’s good for the country, but terrible for my business,″ he said gloomily.

In Mudanya, as in much of Turkey, there was public jubilation over the capture of Ocalan, seized Feb. 15 in Kenya after he tried vainly for months to find a country willing to grant him asylum.

During his fighters’ bloody 15-year-old campaign for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey’s southeast _ a conflict that has cost an estimated 37,000 lives _ Ocalan has been relentlessly portrayed by the Turkish government as a murderer and monster.

Mudanya largely reflects overwhelming public sentiment in Turkey that Ocalan is guilty and deserves whatever punishment is meted out. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

When asked if Ocalan should hang, 78-year-old Dogan Alkan, a former soldier sunning himself in his wheelchair along the town’s pretty seaside promenade, replied: ``Oh, no.″

``What they should do,″ he said, ``is burn him at the stake.″

Not everyone is so vehement, but many feel Ocalan is lucky to have a trial at all, even if human rights groups are already questioning the impartiality of Turkey’s state security courts that include military judges.

``The whole world knows he is guilty,″ said Koron, the olive farmer.

Mudanya, a community of about 10,000 people whose population more than doubles with summer visitors, has already been the scene of anti-Ocalan violence.

When the rebel leader’s lawyers traveled to the island last week to meet with him for the first time, a mob of nationalist protesters stoned the bus carrying them. One of the lawyers quit the next day, saying he feared for his life.

No trial date or venue has been announced, but for security reasons, sessions will almost certainly take place on the island. And if Turkey decides to execute Ocalan, the island is also likely where he would go to the gallows.

Many in Mudanya say they are afraid the Kurdish conflict, until now largely confined to the war zone in the rugged mountains of the southeast, could play itself out in terror attacks, perhaps targeting them.

Or they fear that Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, could even try to stage a jailbreak, quixotic though that effort might be. In the past the island has not been impregnable. In 1997, several Chechen inmates who had hijacked a ferry to protest Russia’s war in Chechnya escaped from Imrali.

Since Ocalan’s arrival, Imrali has been sealed off to all but military traffic, with airspace and waters around it closed. The prison’s 250 inmates _ and even farm animals they cared for _ were all moved off the island to make way for Turkey’s most wanted fugitive.

Another change in the town’s life: antennas and satellite dishes sprouting atop a cluster of broadcast vans for Turkish television stations, which stake out the island 24 hours a day from Mudanya’s port.

Getting ready to do a live update, reporter Erdogan Aktas peered at his reflection in the window of the van, quickly smoothing his hair and straightening his tie.

``Ocalan is the biggest story in 75 years in this country,″ he said, harkening back to the Turkish republic’s founding in 1923. ``I want to cover it from start to finish.″

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