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Abduction and imprisonment

Abduction and imprisonment

From 1999 to 2009 he was the sole inmate of the prison, living in complete sensory and social isolation and was and still guarded by more than one thousand soldiers.

In 1998, during one of the unilateral cease-fires, Turkey was threatening Syria with war. Öcalan, driven out of Syria, chose to go to Europe in order to promote a political solution. But he was pushed out of Europe, too, and finally found himself in Kenya. A clandestine operation, backed by an alliance of secret services, abducted him and handed him over to the Turkish state.

Aggravated life imprisonment

His abduction sparked outrage and major protests from Kurds all over the world. An unprecedented rise of anti-Kurdish nationalism in Turkey brought the country to the brink of civil war. Indeed, many people around the world expected an all-out war.

A prison island in the Sea of Marmara, İmralı, was evacuated and prepared solely for Öcalan. There he was detained. After a short show trial in 1999, which the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) deemed “unfair”, he was sentenced to death. After the death penalty was abolished, his sentence was commuted to aggravated life imprisonment, which means he has no possibility for parole. This is actually no different from the death penalty, which is why the ECtHR has ruled against this kind of punishment several times. From 1999 to 2009 he was the sole inmate of the prison, living in complete sensory and social isolation and was and still guarded by more than one thousand soldiers.

Ideological transformations

Instead of calling for renewed war, as most people expected, the imprisoned Öcalan deepened his search for a resolution. He achieved a major ideological shift and formulated what became the Kurdish freedom movement’s new paradigm. Against great obstacles, he managed to persuade his movement and the Kurdish people that a peaceful solution was necessary.

As a result, in 1999 the PKK withdrew all armed forces outside the borders of Turkey. This marked the beginning of a five-year cease-fire, the longest in the history of the conflict. In another surprising move in the same year, he suggested that two “peace groups” consisting of PKK members should return to Turkey, as a sign of readiness for a peaceful solution. The two groups did indeed arrive in Turkey. But there they were arrested and their members served long prison terms.

Calls for peace

Ten years later, in 2009, Öcalan called for another peace group to enter Turkey. So a group of unarmed guerrillas and a group of refugees from the Mexmûr camp crossed the border from South Kurdistan (Iraq) into Turkey. They were not arrested immediately but were welcomed ecstatically by Kurds who hoped that “the war had finally ended” (as some newspapers headlined it). Later, however, many members of the peace groups were arrested and imprisoned.

Öcalan is now seventy and has been incarcerated at Imrali for twenty years. During eleven of those years, he was the only inmate on the island prison. During that time he was not allowed to touch anyone – even handshakes were forbidden. Nonetheless, he continued to insist on a peaceful and political solution, and he continued to hold the greatest influence over the PKK and the Kurdish people. He also inspired and continues to inspire pro-Kurdish political parties such as The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and now the newly formed Peoples’ Democratic Party HDP in Turkey.

Prison Writings

Öcalan has discussed in depth the problems that arise with nation states. Early on, there seemed to be only one viable solution to the Kurdish question: the creation of a Kurdish nation-state. But Öcalan realized that nationalism and nation-states had created many problems not only for the Kurdish people and the Middle East but also for the whole world. He thus tried to formulate a solution that would avoid the trap of nationalism and better fit the situation of the Middle East.

While in prison, Öcalan has written defences and submissions for domestic and European court cases, in which he has continued to search for answers. Despite the harsh prison conditions and his total and severe isolation, he was able to formulate an alternative that he terms the “democratic nation” and “democratic confederalism”, which look for ways not to create new borders but to liberate life and have a plurality of identities. Some of these defences have been translated into several languages and published under the title Prison Writings. Öcalan is the author of more than sixty books on a wide range of topics, from religion, philosophy, and gender liberation to arts, politics, and the issue of national liberation.

Thus Gerry Adams was certainly precise in his statement on Öcalan for the 2013 Time 100 when he said:

“Persuading enemies that there are alternative ways to resolve long-standing differences takes patience and a willingness to engage in dialogue, but most importantly, it requires leadership. Öcalan has demonstrated that leadership. Despite incarceration, he has forged a road map to peace that commits the Kurdish people to democracy, freedom and tolerance.”

Gerry Adams

NEXT: Öcalans solution


The above text is from a document that was prepared by the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan–Peace in Kurdistan”.

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