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 Abdullah Ocalan remains a potent symbol in Turkey

 Source : The National - United Arab Emirates  
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Abdullah Ocalan remains a potent symbol in Turkey  14.2.2009  
By Thomas Seibert

Kurds see Ocalan as a living symbol of the Kurdish cause in Turkey

February 14, 2009

ISTANBUL, — When Turkish agents arrested Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel PKK leader, in a commando operation in Kenya 10 years ago Sunday, Ankara hoped the long and bloody struggle with Ocalan’s PKK rebel group would soon be over. But the PKK* – and Ocalan – continue to pose problems for Turkey.

Ocalan, who had been forced from his long-time home in Syria by Turkish pressure in 1998, embarked on an odyssey through several European countries and ended up in the residence of the Greek ambassador in Nairobi. He was on his way from there to the airport on Feb 15 1999 when he was arrested by Turkish agents and put on a plane to Turkey.

Following the arrest, violent protests by Kurds erupted all over Europe. Ocalan was put on trial on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, after Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002. Ocalan is the only prisoner on the heavily guarded prison island and is allowed only visits from close relatives and his lawyers.

“Ocalan has a high symbolic value for some Kurds,” Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert on Kurdish militants at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, or TEPAV, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday. Mr Ozcan said part of the reason behind this was a “leadership culture” that was still strong in south-eastern Anatolia. The respect enjoyed by Ocalan was similar to that shown to clan chiefs in the region.

Called “leader of the Kurdish people” by his followers and “head of the PKK terrorist organisation and separatist leader” by Turkish officials and media, the 60-year-old Ocalan still triggers strong feelings in Turkey.

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, and many Kurds in Turkey see Ocalan as the embodiment of Kurdish identity, while state institutions and many Turks regard him as the driving force behind a war that has killed tens of thousands of people since the PKK took up arms to fight for Kurdish autonomy in 1984.                                 

Turkish Kurds hold a poster of the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Abdullah Ocalan, during Nowruz celebrations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. A large Turkey's Kurdish community openly sympathise with the Kurdish PKK rebels.

Jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan Now, The only prisoner on the Imrali Island in the Turkish Sea of Marmara. photo from ROJ TV station 2007

Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan before his arrest
“For Kurds, there is no solution to this problem without Ocalan,” said Ramazan Pekgoz, a board member of the pro-Kurdish Gunluk publishing company. “Kurds want Ocalan to be accepted as an interlocutor” of the Turkish state, something that Ankara rejects. Mr Pekgoz said he expected widespread protests in Turkey’s Kurdish region on the 10th anniversary of Ocalan’s arrest.

Protests began even before the anniversary. Earlier this week, several provinces in the Kurdish region in south-eastern Anatolia saw demonstrations by Kurdish youths commemorating Ocalan’s arrest and protesting against what they call the “plot of Feb 15”, pro-Kurdish media reported. Ocalan’s supporters talk of a plot because the PKK leader is said to have been captured with the help of US intelligence.

Mr Ozcan said the protests had also to be seen in connection with Turkey’s upcoming local elections on March 29.

“The PKK wants to raise tensions” before polling day, because the organisation wanted to polarise between those who voted for the main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, and those who favoured “the state”, Mr Ozcan said.

In a meeting with his lawyers on Imrali last month, Ocalan called on Kurds not to vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP says it wants to end the DTP’s reign in town halls across the Kurdish area in the upcoming elections.

With political tensions running high, reports of alleged ill-treatment of Ocalan on Imrali have fanned the flames. Last year, reports saying he had been subjected to a haircut against his will triggered demonstrations in Turkey’s south-east. The justice ministry denied that Ocalan had been forced to have a haircut.

“The smallest thing that happens on Imrali has repercussions in the Kurdish area,” Mr Pekgoz said.

Other rumours in recent years said that Ocalan was being slowly poisoned on Imrali or that he had been beaten by Turkish soldiers.

While supporters see Ocalan as a living symbol of the Kurdish cause, the Turkish judiciary is very sensitive to what it regards as PKK propaganda surrounding the jailed rebel leader.

Some of Ocalan’s lawyers and supporters have been put on trial for calling him “Mr Ocalan”, with prosecutors arguing that the honorific for someone sentenced to life in prison amounted to “praise for a criminal”, which can result in up to two years in prison.

Earlier this week, a prosecutor in Adiyaman in south-eastern Turkey opened an investigation against several DTP members for spreading propaganda of a terrorist organisation. The DTP politicians, who are running as candidates in the local elections next month, had posed for pictures in front of a photograph of Ocalan.

During his trial on Imrali, Ocalan called on the PKK to stop fighting and withdraw from Turkey. Thousands of rebels regrouped in northern Iraq and the fighting between the PKK and Turkish security forced died down for several years. The truce ended in 2005 when a group linked to the PKK killed five people in a bomb attack in the Aegean resort town of Kusadasi. Since then, the PKK has stepped up its attacks, despite a cross-border military intervention by Turkey in northern Iraq last year which had the aim of flushing out rebels from the area near the border.

Leyla Zana, a prominent Kurdish politician, told the European Parliament last year that only Ocalan could stop the violence. She added that an end to Ocalan’s isolation on Imrali could help to secure a ceasefire.

Turkey’s justice minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin, said late last year that five or six inmates from other Turkish prisons may be transferred to Imrali after the erection of new buildings there.

But Mr Pekgoz said announcements like that did not amount to a substantial change in Ankara’s position.

“It’s just cosmetics,” he said. “The state has not taken any concrete steps.”

Copyright, respective author or news agency, thenational ae

* The PKK is considered a 'terrorist' organization by Ankara and U.S., the PKK continues to be on the blacklist list in EU despite court ruling which overturned a decision to place the Kurdish rebel group PKK and its political wing on the European Union's terror list.

Over 40,000 Turkish soldiers and Kurdish PKK guerrillas have been killed since 1984 when the Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) took up arms for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey (Turkey-Kurdistan). A large Turkey's Kurdish community openly sympathise with the Kurdish PKK rebels. Turkey refuses to recognize its Kurdish population as a distinct minority.

The PKK demanded Turkey's recognition of the Kurds' identity in its constitution and of their language as a native language along with Turkish in the country's Kurdish areas,
the party also demanded an end to ethnic discrimination in Turkish laws and constitution against Kurds, ranting them full political freedoms.

Turkey refuses to recognize its Kurdish population as a distinct minority. It has allowed some cultural rights such as limited broadcasts in the Kurdish language and private Kurdish language courses with the prodding of the European Union, but Kurdish politicians say the measures fall short of their expectations.

** Kurds are not recognized as an official minority in Turkey and are denied rights granted to other minority groups. Under EU pressure, Turkey recently granted Kurds limited rights for broadcasts and education in the Kurdish language, but critics say the measures do not go far enough.

The use of the term "Kurdistan" is vigorously rejected due to its alleged political implications by the Republic of Turkey, which does not recognize the existence of a "Turkish Kurdistan" Southeast Turkey.

Others estimate over 40 million Kurds live in Big Kurdistan (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia), which covers an area as big as France, about half of all Kurds which estimate to 20 million live in Turkey.

Turkey is home to 25 million ethnic Kurds, a large Turkey's Kurdish community openly sympathise with the Kurdish PKK for a Kurdish homeland in the country's mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Before August 2002, the Turkish government placed severe restrictions on the use of Kurdish language, prohibiting the language in education and broadcast media. The Kurdish alphabet is still not recognized in Turkey, and use of the Kurdish letters X, W, Q which do not exist in the Turkish alphabet has led to judicial persecution in 2000 and 2003

The Kurdish flag flown officially in Iraqi Kurdistan but unofficially flown by Kurds in Armenia. The flag is banned in Iran, Syria, and Turkey where flying it is a criminal offence" 

Southeastern Turkey: North Kurdistan ( Kurdistan-Turkey) wikipedia    


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