Thousands of Turkish and Kurdish demonstrators flooded into this eastern French city under heavy security, as the European Court of Human Rights prepared to hear Tuesday an appeal by Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan against his death sentence.
First to arrive were 250 Kurds who had travelled by bus from Luxembourg to join as many as 15,000 others expected for a rally Tuesday in support of Ocalan, the former Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader, who was sentenced to death by Turkey in June 1999 for treason and separatism.
With Turkey already at odds with European institutions over its human rights record, the Ocalan hearing is a political hot potato.
Turkey has suspended Ocalan's sentence pending the outcome of the of his appeal, and the rebel leader has a good chance of escaping execution as abolition of the death penalty is a condition of Turkey joining the EU.
French police have mounted a major security operation to ensure the safety of the court building, and to keep the Kurds' rally well apart from a Turkish counter-demonstration.
Carrying placards and lapel badges bearing the faces of victims of the PKK's armed struggle for an independent homeland, participants in the Turkish rally also began pouring into the city on foot and by bus overnight.
Many of them arrived across Strasbourg's Rhine Bridge which marks the border between France and Germany.
Until Ocalan ordered the PPK to lay downs its arms at the opening of his trial in May 1999 -- a call the group agreed to in September 1999 -- the 15-year-old war with the Turkish state had seen up to 36,000 people killed.
Ocalan, who is currently the only prisoner at the Imrali jail on an island in the Sea of Marmara, has repeatedly offered to broker a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem.
But Ankara has rejected his approaches and the Turkish army continues to pursue some 500 Kurdish rebels still in southeast Turkey, as well as some 5,000 who have allegedly taken refuge in northern Iraq.
Ocalan's defense lawyers claim their client's sentence violates several articles of the European human rights convention, including the right to life, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression and the right to respect for private and family life.
They also point to the convention's ban on inhuman and degrading penalties and treatment, and on discrimination.
Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1950 and is bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court. It has been condemned by the court on a number of occasions for the torture of Kurds and the destruction of their property, and in all except one case, has abided by the court's rulings.
But since Turkey became a candidate for membership of the EU last year, its dubious human rights record has come under much closer scrutiny.
Earlier in November, the European Commission issued a critical report saying that Turkey had not met the conditions to further its membership bid, stating that "many aspects of the overall human rights situation remain worrying."
The report called on Turkey to carry out radical reforms to ensure freedom of expression, cultural rights for minorities, an end to capital punishment and torture, and a reduced role for the military in political life.
It also provoked an angry response from Ankara by linking the its membership to a resolution of the long-standing problem of Cyprus.
Turkish hackles were raised again last week, when the European parliament passed a similar resolution, and called on the country to recognize the 1915-17 "genocide" of Armenians during World War I -- STRASBOURG (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)