Worldwide protests demand asylum for Ocalan
By Norm Dixon
A Rome court on November 20 ordered the release on bail of Abdullah Ocalan, general secretary of the left-wing pro-independence Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while his appeal for political asylum is considered. Ocalan then called on thousands of Kurds, who had travelled to Rome to demand his release, to return to their homes.
Thousands of Kurdish exiles and their supporters had converged from all over Europe to demand that the Italian government grant asylum to Ocalan. More than 4000 people maintained a vigil outside the Celio military hospital, where Ocalan was believed to be held.
On November 18, more than 10,000 Kurds and supporters marched through Rome.
Ocalan was seized by Italian police as he arrived at Rome's airport from Moscow on November 12. Ocalan had been forced to flee Syria after the Turkish government had threatened war to pressure the Syrian government to deny PKK fighters sanctuary on its territory.
Ocalan had unsuccessfully sought political asylum in Moscow before flying to Rome.
Ankara is demanding Ocalan's extradition to Turkey, where he faces charges that carry the death penalty. Turkey paints the PKK's armed struggle for self-determination as "terrorism", a charge backed by the US and German governments.
The PKK, formed in 1978, is fighting for self-determination for the Kurdish people. Since 1984, its methods have included armed struggle.
About 30 million Kurds live in an area split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia, about half of them within the Turkish state.
Protesters began gathering outside the Celio military hospital within hours of the news of Ocalan's detention, after the PKK-aligned National Front for the Liberation of Kurdistan (ERNK) called on supporters of national self-determination for Kurds to travel to Rome. Women chanted "Freedom for Apo [Ocalan's nickname], Freedom for Kurdistan".
Kurds took time off from their jobs as factory workers and bus drivers to stage the vigil. Some protesters came from as far away as Sweden, but most travelled from Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium. They slept in the streets or in their battered old Opels and kombi vans. Local charities supplied blankets, and left-wing parties provided tea and soup.
"We will stay here until Ocalan's political situation is cleared up. We will stay here until our last drop of blood", one of the protesters told a Reuters correspondent. "Ocalan represents 40 million people, and if he is not released it is like jailing 40 millions Kurds."
The Austrian government reinstituted passport checks on its border with Germany to prevent Kurds crossing its territory to Italy. Three buses with more that 200 Kurds on board were turned back on November 17. Fifty Kurds began a hunger strike in Vienna on November 15.
On November 17, 4000 protested in Bonn and 50 began a hunger strike. Hundreds more rallied in Vienna. In Romania, 39 ERNK members are on hunger strike, and Kurdish shops in Bucharest closed on November 16 in solidarity.
In Moscow on November 17, two Kurdish protesters set themselves on fire. One hundred people there are on hunger strike. PKK Moscow representative Mahir Welat, speaking to the press about the self-immolations, accused the Russian government of collaborating with Ankara.
Ocalan had been in Moscow since October 9. During his stay, the Russian government ignored a resolution passed by the Duma calling for Ocalan to be granted asylum.
The Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, citing "intelligence sources", reported that Moscow tipped off the Italian police of Ocalan's departure for Rome. In return, the newspaper reported, "Ankara promised to decrease the activities of its spy agencies in Russia, including Chechnya".
In Washington, Kurds are on hunger strike on the steps of the Capitol building.
Hundreds of jailed PKK fighters in jails throughout Turkey also began hunger strikes. On November 17, hundreds of pro-Kurdish protesters in Istanbul were attacked by members of the neo-fascist National Action Party. The demonstrators were arrested by police to "save them", reported the official Anatolia news agency.
Turkish authorities have launched a crackdown on the main legal Kurdish party, the People's Democracy Party (HADEP). More than 500 HADEP members have been detained.
Five busloads of riot police have been stationed outside the party's Istanbul headquarters. Police stood by as far-right nationalists blockaded HADEP buildings in other towns.
On November 17, an Ankara court sentenced HADEP leader Murat Bozlak to 12 months' jail for speeches he made in 1993 that contained "separatist propaganda".
The coalition government of Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema is under enormous pressure to extradite Ocalan. So keen is Ankara to behead the PKK that it is prepared to abolish the death penalty because Italian law prevents extradition to countries that retain capital punishment.
On November 18, the US government threw its weight behind Ankara. State Department spokesperson James Rubin said: "We believe [Ocalan] should be extradited and brought to justice. We hope a way will be found to extradite him to Turkey, consistent with international and Italian law."
Turkish and Italian big business interests are pressing for Ocalan's extradition. Turkey is Italy's second largest export market, worth US$3 billion in the first nine months of 1998.
Rahmi Koc, owner of Turkey's biggest business group, has urged Italy's Fiat car company — which has extensive investments in Turkey — to use its influence on the Italian government. Peak bodies of Turkish capitalists have threatened a boycott of Italian imports, and the Turkish defence ministry has threatened to suspend arms imports.
Italy's foreign minister, Lamberto Dini, supports Ocalan's extradition to Turkey. He also reportedly is in favour of extradition to Germany, where Ocalan is also wanted, as a "compromise".
Dini is a supporter of close ties with Ankara and has championed Turkey's entry to the European Union. Dini and his big business co-thinkers see Turkey as a "gateway" to the Middle East and republics of the former Soviet Union for Italian capital.
Despite this, there is strong support for Ocalan within the governing coalition, and Italian society. In September, the Kurdish parliament in exile was allowed to meet in Italy's parliament building.
Attending the press conference after the Kurdish parliament's meeting were Paulo Cento of the Italian Greens and Marco Pezzoni of the Left Democrats (DS, formerly the Party of the Democratic Left). The DS is the leading party in the government, and PM D'Alema is a member. The Greens are also in the government.
Also attending were Ramon Mantovani and Walter de Cesarisa of the opposition Party of Communist Refoundation.
On November 17, Cento revealed that Ocalan flew to Rome "on an invitation from 32 deputies and senators, including minister of justice Oliviero Diliberto".
"We view [the Kurds] with the same favour that we once viewed the Palestinians", Giulio Calvisi, DS immigration spokesperson, told the November 18 British Financial Times. "There is no doubt in the public's mind that Kurds are genuine political refugees."
On November 16, Ocalan issued a statement which called for a "civilised solution to the real causes of war" in Kurdistan. "There can be no humane explanation for genocidal attacks on cultures and freedoms of peoples ... I am opposed to all terror, even if it originates from us. I am ready to do whatever I can so it can be stopped immediately", Ocalan pledged.
"I have come to Italy to open the way to a political settlement. I want to create the political conditions for this. I state that I will show the utmost respect to the values of the Italian people and be bound by its laws."
D'Alema said Ocalan's statement made it easier for his request for asylum to be granted. He said a committee in the interior ministry would make the final decision.