Ocalan goes from enemy No 1 to potential peacemaker in Turkey

From his jail cell in on the prison island of Imrali, Abdullah Ocalan is poised to become the key to ending a three-decade war between the army and the PKK. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, is seen in 1992. Today, from his jail cell in on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul, he is poised to become the key to ending a three-decade war between the army and the PKK. AFP
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ISTANBUL // Abdullah Ocalan is an unlikely candidate for peacemaker.

He is the founder and leader of the main Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). He was long regarded as Turkey's public enemy number one for leading a war of independence against the Turkish state.

Yet now, from his jail cell in on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul, he is poised to become the key to ending a three-decade war between the army and the PKK that has killed more than 40,000 people.

In December, the Turkish intelligence service started talks with Ocalan on the island, where he has been held since Turkish agents snatched him in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1999 and smuggled him back to Turkey.

This week, during a planned visit by Kurdish politicians to the island, he is expected to make his first official statement on the status of the talks, which centre on an end to armed struggle by the PKK, the recognition of Kurds in Turkey as a separate ethnic group and the establishment of some form of autonomy for Kurdish-dominated areas of the country.

Ocalan's authority to speak on behalf of the Kurds has endured even though he has been locked away for 14 years and has not been seen in public for more than a decade. Last November, the 64-year-old Ocalan demonstrated how revered he remains among Kurds when hundreds of Kurdish prisoners ended a hunger strike after he ordered them to do so.

His continuing authority stems from a life that closely parallels the Kurdish struggle itself.

He was born in the village of Omerli, near Sanliurfa in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish south-east, as the oldest of seven children of a peasant family. He became politically active with leftist groups as a political science student in Ankara and was arrested and jailed for seven months in April 1972 for distributing pamphlets in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Following the formation of the Marxist PKK in 1978, Ocalan and other Kurdish nationalists were increasingly radicalised by the repression of Kurds in the years after the military coup of 1980. Many Kurdish activists were tortured and killed. Ocalan himself fled Turkey in 1981.

The PKK started its violent campaign for Kurdish self-rule in August 1984. Ocalan saw the armed struggle as an effort to free Kurds from a Turkish system that denied them basic rights, refused to recognise the Kurdish ethnicity and blocked political and social progress in the underdeveloped region.

"In Turkey, they say there are no Kurds, that they don't exist," Ocalan said in 1998. "Turkey only accepts the Kurd who denies he is a Kurd."

For years, Ocalan conducted his war against Turkey from Syria, with support from then-Syrian President Hafez Al Assad. But in 1998, the Syrian regime asked Ocalan to leave Damascus after Turkey threatened military action against Syria.

His capture in Kenya occurred several months later, reportedly after a tip-off by US intelligence. He was brought to Imrali and sentenced to death in June 1999. His death sentenced was commuted to life in prison when Turkey did away with capital punishment in 2002.

From Turkey's point of view, Ocalan gained some credence as a peacemaker when he acknowledged during his trial that the PKK had killed innocent people. It had also killed internal dissidents, he said.

"I share the grief of the families of the martyrs, and I promise here that from now on I will work for the establishment of peace," he told the court on Imrali.

His credbility has also been enhanced by the PKK's decision to abandon its drive for a separate Kurdish state.

Murat Karayilan has served as the PKK's acting leader since Ocalan's capture but he remains an object of public fascination.

Little is known of his daily routines in prison, but even the status of his distinctive moustache has been the subject of speculation. Several years ago, the PKK leader was reported to have shaved it off, but Ocalan's brother, Mehmet, said after visiting him in November that his brother still wore a bushy moustache, albeit a greying one.

Last week, several Turkish newspapers reported that Ocalan had read around 2,300 magazines and books since 1999. He spent his first ten years on Imrali as the only prisoner, but was joined by several other inmates in 2009 after criticism by the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

After years of being allowed only to listen to the radio programme of state broadcaster TRT, Ocalan received a flat screen television in his cell last month.

In prison, Ocalan has written a manuscript for a book titled The Kurds' Manifesto, but has not received permission to publish it. He has turned to Turkey's constitutional court to lift the ban.

Oguz Ender Birinci, the political editor of the Ozgur Gundem daily, a pro-Kurdish newspaper that often reflects PKK positions, said that government talks with Ocalan underscored his leadership role as the leader of an organisation that had many followers among Turkey's estimated twelve million Kurds.

"Ocalan is important, not just for Kurds in Turkey, but also in Iran, Iraq and Syria, the whole Middle East," he said.