Who is Abdullah Ocalan?
Abdullah Ocalan was born into a poor family in 1949 in the village of Amara (Turkish: Ömerli), from the province of Urfa in the Kurdistan region of Turkey. Once he finished the primary and secondary school, he started to work as a civil servant in the city of Diyarbakir. From there he enrolled into the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Ankara. Ocalan and his fellow students witnessed the political murders happening by the 1971 military coup. Affected by the Turkish government’s heavy denial and suppression of the Kurdish identity and cultural rights, coupled with his people’s impoverished social and economic conditions, Ocalan decided to conduct research into the Kurdish issue along with his friends. After many years of political engagement, the student movement around Ocalan was changed in 1978 officially into the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The goal was to animate a political change in Turkey. While Ocalan focused his work primarily on the cultural and political rights of the Kurdish people, he discussed topics of philosophy, religion, women’s liberation and ecology in numerous of his speeches and books, and kept on developing new ideas. He focussed from the outset on the question on how to stop the cycle of war in the Middle East and how to ensure the peoples a life in peace and harmony.
When signals for a new military coup were coming up, Ocalan left Turkey in 1979. From abroad he continued to lead the political activities of the PKK. The devastating military coup in Turkey took place just a year after in 1980, resulting in hundreds of thousands of detentions and widespread torture. The PKK was faced with death, and decided to prepare for an armed resistance. The guerrilla war started in 1984. Realising early on that military solutions lack solutions and thus are unlikely to benefit society, Ocalan tried to shift the focus to a political solution in the early 1990s. The Turkish state, however, did not respond to unilateral ceasefires by the PKK, and tried to use any chance to kill and displace more civilians. In the 1990s more than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, were killed. Thousands became victims of state-controlled death squads. More than 4000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, Kurds in their millions became refugees. Torture and an immense number of human rights violations were committed by the Turkish army on a daily basis. In 1998, during another unilateral cease-fire by the PKK, Turkey threatened Syria with war.
Ocalan left Syria and headed for Europe to promote a political solution. Italy, where he stayed for three months, came under massive pressure from Turkey and its NATO allies. Ocalan left Italy again and embarked later for South Africa but never reached it. On February 15, 1999, as the result of a coordinated illegal operation of secret services of Europe, America and other states, Ocalan was abducted in Kenya and handed over to the Turkish state. The abduction sparked outrage and major protests from Kurds broke out all over the world. Turkey fell into a frenzy of anti-Kurdish nationalism, which brought the country to the brink of a civil war.
Ocalan was taken to the prison island Imrali, also known as the European Guantanamo. It was emptied entirely to keep him alone there. From 1999 to 2009 he was the sole inmate of the prison, living in constant isolation, guarded by more than 1000 soldiers. In prison he has authored numerous books in the form of submissions to various courts. 12 of them have been published. Many of them are already translated into multiple languages. On June 29, 1999, after a bogus trial, Ocalan was given the death sentence. The trial was condemned later in 2005 by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.
The death penalty was abolished in Turkey in 2002 and his sentence changed into “aggravated life-long imprisonment” without the possibility of parole – in other words: imprisonment until death. Since Ocalan was driven out of Syria in 1998, countless protests have taken place in Kurdistan, Turkey and abroad against his abduction, against the death penalty, against the isolation regime on Imrali Island, for Ocalan’s health, to support his political role and finally against the tightened total isolation since July 2011. Since 1998 numerous people in Kurdistan, Turkish prisons and in Europe have burned themselves in protest against the attacks on Ocalan and his isolation. More than 100 people have died from their self-inflicted burns since then. While Ocalan repeatedly strongly discouraged this most extreme form of protest, Kurds in their desperation have again and again chosen to sacrifice themselves.
International Initiative “Freedom for Ocalan –Peace in Kurdistan”
The International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan – Peace in Kurdistan” was founded immediately after Ocalan’s abduction to Turkey in 1999. A wide range of first signatories, among them 6 Noble Prize laureates and numerous MPs and MEPs, supported the founding statement. Focussing at first on the immediate threat of execution and later on the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey and the intolerable isolation conditions on Imrali Island, the International Initiative has ever since informed the public about Ocalan’s conditions and political initiatives. The International Initiative publishes Abdullah Ocalan’s works in several European languages in the form of books and brochures. 15 February protests Every year around 15 February, the anniversary of Ocalan’s abduction from Kenya, Kurds demonstrate in protest in Kurdistan and abroad. Tens of thousands of Kurds from all over Europe come to Strasbourg every year. Gemlik marches on 9 October, the anniversary of Ocalan’s forced departure from Syria in 1998, demonstrations are conducted in Gemlik, the town opposite of Imrali Island.