Abdullah Ocalan remains a potent symbol in
By Thomas Seibert
see Ocalan as a living symbol of the Kurdish cause
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
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,www.ekurd.net
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 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"
North Kurdistan (
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