Why Turkey must free Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan


Flag of PKK with image of Abdullah Ocalan.

Millions of Kurds view Abdullah Öcalan as their political representative. His freedom is directly linked to a democratic and peaceful solution to the war in Turkey.

Wounded people trapped in basements, civilians burned alive, children shot on the streets, dead women's bodies stripped naked for display — the Turkish state and army is engaged in a mass-murderous war, not on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, but on the civilian Kurdish population in front of the eyes of the international community, which does not dare to even condemn the atrocities.

Seventeen years after Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, was captured in 1999, civil war is tearing northern Kurdistan and Turkey apart.

Well-aware of Öcalan's power to direct politics in war and peace, the Turkish state has been isolating him completely from the outside world since April 2015, before the parliamentary elections and the massive escalation of the war, which violently marked the end of the two-and-a-half-year long peace process initiated by Öcalan.

After being forced out of Syria due to Turkish pressure, Öcalan first tried to seek asylum in Europe and was pressured out of Italy by the threats of EU countries, which sided with their NATO partner Turkey.

On his way to South Africa, Öcalan was kidnapped in Kenya and renditioned to Turkey in a furious collaboration of several secret services, including the CIA. His final destination, and home ever since, has been the prison island İmralı.

Referring to him as “baby killer,” the Turkish media launched a massive propaganda campaign showing a drugged, semi-conscious Öcalan in an attempt to ridicule the Kurdish struggle by humiliating its leader.

This day is regarded as “Roja Resh” (Black Day) by millions of Kurds to this day. On countless occasions, Kurds made it clear that Öcalan's freedom is directly linked to freedom and peace in Kurdistan and Turkey.

Although Öcalan has many times expressed his denunciation of this act, more than 100 people have self-immolated to protest his imprisonment.

Öcalan has on countless occasions emphasised the importance of dialogue and negotiation, announcing several unilateral ceasefires. In 2009, on the day that marked the 25th anniversary of the PKK's armed struggle, he finished the “Road Map to Negotiations.” His historic Newroz statement in 2013 effectively ended a war and announced the era to “silence the weapons and let the ideas and politics speak”.

His renewed isolation is a calculated war tool used by Turkey to weaken the Kurds psychologically, as well as to legitimise its limitless killing spree on the civilian population.

The “European Guantanamo”: İmralı Island

For the first 11 years of his imprisonment, Öcalan was the only prisoner on İmralı. No less than 1,000 soldiers were guarding his cell. His initial sentence was death for high treason, but three years after his capture, the death penalty was abolished in Turkey due to pressure from the EU, which Turkey desperately wanted to enter at the time.

An atmosphere of psychological harassment and torture dictates the security regime of İmralı. Öcalan receives only censored information from the outside and was denied any human contact, including handshakes for years.

Thousands of Kurdish activists, both in Europe and in Turkish prisons, engaged in several hunger strikes, some of them up to 68 days, to raise awareness of Öcalan's conditions. Only after these hunger strikes drew attention to evidence that Öcalan was being slowly poisoned, the EU's anti-torture watchdog, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, agreed to examine Öcalan's health in 2007. İmralı violates human rights with impunity, which has led some to call it the “Guantanamo of Europe.”

Öcalan has been denied access to his lawyers since 2011 and his family since 2014. His lawyers are constantly harassed, threatened and jailed. Political delegations were able to visit Öcalan in brief meetings in the framework of the peace process initiated by him. For almost a year, he has been totally isolated — anything could have happened to him.

Daily vigils in front of the European Council in Strasbourg have been held for Öcalan's freedom since mid-2012. Every week, a different group of activists camps out in front of the council. In a tireless worldwide campaign, led by the international initiative “Freedom for Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan,” more than 10.3 million signatures have been collected for his freedom. Signatories include Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Jeremy Corbyn and Antonio Negri, as well as many parliamentarians, authors, thinkers and activists.

As hundreds of thousands of activists across the world marched for his freedom this year, activist and former lawyer of Nelson Mandela, Judge Essa Moosa, led an international delegation to İmralı to request a meeting with Öcalan to re-initiate the peace process.

Moosa said, “We believe Öcalan can play a very important role for the resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey, in the same way President Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.”

While the Turkish state enjoys the support of NATO and EU countries, Öcalan does not even have proper access to the media. It is impossible to negotiate a solution to a four decades-old conflict in isolation. In the words of Mandela: “No man can negotiate in chains!”

Not only does Öcalan continue to be seen as the political voice of millions of oppressed Kurds, he is also an intellectually impactful person who authored at least 40 books, many of them while in prison.

His philosophical views underwent a massive paradigm shift, illustrating remarkable intellectual creativity and willpower despite suffering inhumane conditions. Öcalan heavily criticised himself and his own party for authoritarian practices in its initial stages. He publicly apologised for many actions. His analysis of the nature of power, patriarchy, the global economic order, nation-states and ecological issues, not only gained him even more support among Kurds, but more recently engaged radical thinkers and movements around the world.

Although only a few of his books have been translated into European languages, many people began to engage with his thought, from Latin American grassroots-movements to progressive leftist groups in the Middle East to women around the world.

In the last few years, people like Immanuel Wallerstein and David Graeber wrote forewords to his books, while thinkers like David Harvey, Slavoj Žižek and John Holloway expressed the immense value of Öcalan's writings for radical change in the Middle East beyond Kurdistan.

The fact that Öcalan's proposals resonate with so many groups across the world obviously threatens the ideology of the Turkish state and its accomplices.

Recently Resat Baris Ünlü, a Turkish professor at Ankara University was charged for promoting terrorism when he posed an exam question on the development of Öcalan's thought to his students. The prosecutors perceived this question as dangerous and subversive because it “legitimises” Öcalan's thinking and suggests that he is a political leader.

Much has been written about Öcalan's “democratic confederalism” as an alternative to the nation-state, a system that is currently being implemented in different parts of Kurdistan, most notably in Rojava.

However, to many people who understand his position solely as a charismatic leader, the emotional meaning that millions of Kurds attach to him is incomprehensible.

Thousands of people spent time with him in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and in Damascus. Countless ordinary people received his education and got to know him closely.

Unlike corrupt, wealthy Kurdish leaders that are selected by Western governments and states like Turkey as the “true representatives” of the Kurds, Öcalan is the son of a poor family and led a very modest life throughout his leadership. His claims about leading a people's movement were reinforced by his lifestyle and approach to the people.

Especially for women, Öcalan has always been a comrade — he never viewed them as lovers, mothers, sisters or daughters, but as themselves. He always emphasised that women are the most democratic force and that the struggle for freedom will be led by the women's revolution.

Many of the women who now fight against the Islamic State group joined the struggle after having met him and having been influenced by his respect and faith in women's power and his profound analysis of patriarchy, from the Kurdish family to the global system.

In Rojava, where a women-led social revolution is underway, many elderly women keep old photos of educationals and assemblies with Öcalan like treasures, as they vow to defeat the Islamic State group by organising the strength of women. They say that the women's revolution of Rojava began with his arrival decades ago. Kobanê was his first destination.

With his theoretical writings and practice, as well as his unconditional support for women, the Kurdish women's movement has today become one of the most dynamic and radical forces of change in the Middle East.

Few leaders would have managed to convince millions of people to opt for radical democracy instead of a nation-state, while centring their liberation discourse on the power of women, re-initiating peace and reconciliation with all peoples of the Middle East, while making ecology a central ideological pillar in the fight for freedom.

Öcalan has created a community of millions of strong-willed, courageous and determined individuals, with a political project that has become a shining light of hope for peace in the Middle East. This faith in the community is what draws people to him.

His leadership produces and reproduces an entire self-determining society of leaders, with women at the forefront. The democratic autonomy and self-administration struggles accompanied by fearless resistance in different parts of Kurdistan are the practical manifestation of this.

In spite of all the attempts to isolate Öcalan from the Kurdish people, it remains undisputed, even by his biggest enemies, that he is considered the political representative by millions of Kurds. The renewed total isolation at this time of war illustrates that one of the biggest threats to the Turkish state is his voice. In that sense, in the words of Huey Newton: “You can jail a revolutionary, but you can't jail the revolution.”

Free Öcalan!

[Reprinted from TeleSUR English.]

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