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Abdullah Öcalan

English: Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK.
English: Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Abdullah Öcalan (born 4 April 1948) is one of the founding members of organization Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 1978 in Turkey.[7]
Öcalan was arrested in 1999 by Turkish security forces in Nairobi and taken to Turkey, where he was sentenced to death under Article 125[8] of the Turkish Penal Code, which concerns the formation of armed gangs. The sentence was commuted to aggravated life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty in support of its bid to be admitted to membership in the European Union. From 1999 until 2009, he was the sole prisoner[4] on the İmralı island, in the Sea of Marmara.[9] Öcalan has acknowledged the violent nature of the PKK,[10] but says that the period of armed warfare was defunct and a political solution to the Kurdish question should be developed.[11] The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has resulted in over 40,000 deaths, including PKK members, the Turkish military, and civilians, both Kurdish and Turkish.[12]
From prison, Öcalan has published several books, the most recent in 2011.


Abdullah Öcalan was born in Ömerli,[13] a village in HalfetiŞanlıurfa Province, in Eastern Turkey.[14] The oldest of seven children.[15] According to some sources Öcalan's grandmother was an ethnic Turk and (he once claimed that) his mother was also an ethnic Turk.[16][17] According to Amikam Nachmani, lecturer at the Bar-Ilan Universityin Israel, Öcalan did not know Kurdish when he met him in 1991. Nachmani: "He [Öcalan] told me that he speaks Turkish, gives orders in Turkish, and thinks in Turkish."[18] According to theUnited States Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Öcalan "is a Marxist criminal of Armenian origin...supported mostly by the Greeks and the Armenians" who "provide him with funds and arms."[19] The same about his origin is asserted by some Turkish media, who also claim that Öcalan's real name is Artin Agopyan.[20][21] Öcalan's brother Osman, became a PKK commander, serving until defecting with several others to establish the Patriotic and Democratic Party of Kurdistan.[22] His other brother, Mehmet Öcalan, is a member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).[23]
After graduating from a vocational high school in Ankara (TurkishAnkara Tapu-Kadastro Meslek Lisesi), Öcalan started working at the Diyarbakir Title Deeds Office. He was relocated one month later to Bakırköy, Istanbul. Later, he entered the Istanbul Law Faculty but transferred after the first year to Ankara University to study political science.[24] His return to Ankara (normally impossible given his condition[notes 1]) was facilitated by the state in order to divide a militant group, Dev-Genç. President Süleyman Demirel later regretted this decision, since the PKK was to become a much greater threat to the state than Dev-Genç.[25]
In 1978, in the midst of the right- and left-wing conflicts which culminated in the 1980 Turkish coup d'état, Abdullah Öcalan founded the PKK. He launched a war against Turkey in order to set up an independent Kurdish state.[13][26]

Kurdish–Turkish conflict

In 1984, the PKK initiated a campaign of armed conflict, comprising attacks against government forces[27][28][29][30] in Turkey as well as civilians[31][32][33] in order to create an independent Kurdish state. The PKK was linked to extortion rackets and drug trafficking in its drive to raise funds. As a result, the United StatesEuropean UnionNATOSyriaAustraliaTurkey, and many other countries have included the PKK on their lists of terrorist organizations.[34][35][36]

Capture and trial

Öcalan supporters in London, April 2003
Until 1998, Öcalan was based in Syria. As the situation deteriorated in Turkey, the Turkish government openly threatened Syria over its support for the PKK.[citation needed] As a result, the Syrian government forced Öcalan to leave the country, but did not turn him over to the Turkish authorities. Öcalan went to Russia first and from there moved to various countries, including Italy and Greece. In 1998 the Turkish government requested the extradition of Öcalan from Italy. He was at that time defended by Britta Böhler, a high-profile German attorney who argued that he fought a legitimate struggle against the oppression of ethnic Kurds.
He was captured in Kenya on February 15, 1999, while being transferred from the Greek embassy to Jomo Kenyata international airport Nairobi, in an operation by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı with debatable help of CIA or Mossad.[37][38] George Costoulas, the Greek consul who harboured him, said that his life was in danger after the operation.[39]
Speaking to Can Dündar on NTV Turkey, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, Cevat Öneş, said that Öcalan impeded American aspirations of establishing a separate Kurdish state. The Americans transferred him to the Turkish authorities, who flew him back to Turkey for trial.[40] His capture led thousands of Kurds to protest at Greek and Israeli embassies around the world. Kurds living in Germany have been threatened with deportation if they continue to hold violent demonstrations in support of Ocalan. The warning came after three Kurds were killed and 16 injured while storming the Israeli Consulate in Berlin.[41][42] During the flight from Kenya to Turkey, a video recorded by Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı officers. Ocalan stated that his mother is of Turkish origin and that he was ready to serve the people of Turkey in any way.[43]
After his capture, Öcalan was held in solitary confinement as the only prisoner on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara. Although former prisoners at İmralı were transferred to other prisons, more than 1,000 Turkish military personnel were stationed on the island to guard him. He was originally sentenced to death, but this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment upon the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey in August 2002.[44] No one had been executed in Turkey since 1984.[45] The Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) may have aided this case's decision.[46]
In November 2009, Turkish authorities announced that Ocalan would be relocated to a new prison on the island and that they were ending his solitary confinement by transferring several other PKK prisoners to İmralı. They said that Öcalan would be allowed to see them for ten hours a week. The new prison was built after the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torturevisited the island and objected to the conditions in which he was being held.[47][48]
In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated articles 3, 5 and 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights by granting Öcalan no effective remedy to appeal his arrest and sentencing him to death without a fair trial.[49] Öcalan's request for a retrial was refused by Turkish court.[50]

Proposal for political solution

Abandoning his precapture policy, which involved violence targeting civilians as well as military personnel, Öcalan has advocated a relatively peaceful solution to the Kurdish conflict inside the borders of Turkey.[51][52][53][54][55] Öcalan called for the foundation of a "Truth and Justice Commission" by Kurdish institutions in order to investigate war crimes committed by the PKK and Turkish security forces; a parallel structure began functioning in May 2006.[56] In March 2005, Abdullah Öcalan issued the Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan[57] calling for a border-free confederation between the Kurdish regions of Eastern Turkey (called "Northwest Kurdistan" by Kurdish nationalists[58]), East Syria ("Small part of South Kurdistan"), Northern Iraq ("South Kurdistan"), and West of Iran ("East Kurdistan"). In this zone, three bodies of law would be implemented: EU law, Turkish/Syrian/Iraqi/Iranian law and Kurdish law. This perspective was included in the PKK programme following the "Refoundation Congress" in April 2005.[59]
Since his incarceration, Ocalan has significantly changed his ideology, reading Western social theorists such as Murray BookchinImmanuel WallersteinFernand Braudel,[60] fashioned his ideal society as "Democratic Confederalism," and refers to Friedrich Nietzsche as "a prophet".[61] He also wrote books[62] and articles[63] on the history of pre-capitalist Mesopotamia and Abrahamic religions.
Öcalan had his lawyer, Ibrahim Bilmez,[64] release a statement 28 September 2006, calling on the PKK to declare a ceasefire and seek peace with Turkey. Öcalan's statement said, "The PKK should not use weapons unless it is attacked with the aim of annihilation," and that it is "very important to build a democratic union between Turks and Kurds. With this process, the way to democratic dialogue will be also opened".[65] He made another such declaration in March 2013.
On May 31, 2010 however, Öcalan said he was abandoning an ongoing dialogue between him and Turkey saying that "this process is no longer meaningful or useful". Turkey ignored his three protocols for negotiation that included (a) his terms of health and security (b) his release and (c) a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Though the Turkish government received these protocols, they were never published. Öcalan stated that he would leave the top PKK commanders in charge of the conflict. However, he also said that his comments should not be misinterpreted as a call for the PKK to intensify its armed conflict with the Turkish state.[66][67]


Abdullah Öcalan is the author of more than 40 books, four of which were written in prison. Many of the notes taken from his weekly meetings with his lawyers have been edited and published, notably:

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