Abdullah Ocalan: National Hero or Terrorist?

Abdullah Öcalan. (Photo from hevallo.blogspot.com)

Abdullah Öcalan, founder and leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), was arrested in Kenya in 1999, tried in Turkey a year later, and sentenced to death. By the time of Öcalan's arrest, over 30,000 Turkish soldiers, PKK fighters, and civilians had been killed in the armed struggle for independence that the PKK launched in 1984. 

When the death penalty was repealed in 2002, Öcalan's sentence was commuted to life in prison. Earlier this year -- 13 years after his arrest -- the third volume of his Prison Writings has been published in English. The book, The Road Map to Negotiations, presents Öcalan's plan for attaining Kurdish rights and peace in Turkey. This plan was the subject of secret talks between Öcalan and the Turkish government from 2009 to 2011. So how did Öcalan go from being a fugitive terrorist and secessionist to participating in secret peace talks with the Turkish government?


Abdullah Öcalan was born in 1949 and grew up in a Kurdish village in southeast Turkey. After studying political science at Ankara University, he founded the PKK in 1978 in the midst of political turmoil that led to a coup in 1980. Öcalan was an ardent Marxist and PKK ideology reflects this. The central goal of the PKK was the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the southeast region of Turkey. After decades of what amounted to forced assimilation through the denial of cultural rights and various other human rights abuses, many Kurds came to support the PKK and view its leader as a national hero. 

In 1984 the group initiated an armed conflict, attacking Turkish military targets as well as civilians. Since then, the fighting has been almost continuous with the exception of a ceasefire from 1999 to 2004, as well as several shorter periods of ceasefire. The PKK, which has been linked to extortion rackets and drug trafficking to raise funds, is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, European Union, NATO, and other countries. 

Öcalan was based in Syria until the Turkish government openly threatened Syria in 1998 for its support of the PKK. The Syrian government forced Öcalan to leave and he fled to Russia and then various other countries in Europe. On February 15, 1999 he was captured in Kenya and brought to Turkey for trial. You can read a translation of his testimony here

After his conviction, Öcalan was held in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali in the Marmara Sea. Although all the other prisoners were transferred out, over 1,000 Turkish military personnel remained to guard only Öcalan. After the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited him and objected to the conditions in which he was held, the Turkish government began building a new facility for him and other prisoners who were members of the PKK. 

Since Öcalan's incarceration, his views have softened and he now supports a political rather than an armed solution to the Kurdish question. In 2006 he issued a statement calling on the PKK to declare a ceasefire and seek peace with Turkey. He 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." 

Although his talks with the Turkish government have collapsed, Öcalan remains an influential figure. He is a prolific writer and thinker whose views on history, democracy, and the nation-state have evolved in light of his personal hardships, the ordeals of the Kurdish people, and the changing political landscape in Turkey. 

Shoshi Shmuluvitz

Diwaniyya Contributor

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