The room is narrow and its dark walls seem to make it smaller. There is only one barred window, allowing the sun to shine in but keeping the sea breeze out. Next to the bed is a white washbasin and a toilet, further reducing the amount of space. Against one wall is a narrow, black bookshelf, with a white plastic table in front of it. Both of them are crammed with books. And between them, Abdullah Öcalan is reading, leaning on his left side, cross-legged and barefoot. It is in this room – photographed several years ago – that the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has spent his days and nights for the past 24 years, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers.
What has been on Öcalan’s mind in the solitude of the prison island of İmrali? He could be thinking about the Taurus and Zagros mountains, which have been steadfast allies of the Kurdish people. He could also be thinking of the thousands of men and women who passionately chant his byname, “Apo”, during demonstrations demanding his freedom.
Could he feel that his ideas, originally born in the heat of guerrilla warfare and fervent discussions with his comrades, are now being defended by various means, including the construction of a new society in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan – a land he knew intimately until he was expelled by the Damascus government on 9 October 1998?
Isolated, threatened and without contact with his lawyers or family for 30 months, the PKK leader is still the main protagonist of the Kurdish peoples’ struggle. He is also the guarantor that the Kurds are demanding in order to achieve peace in Turkey. This possibility, however, horrifies Ankara.
Challenging Turkish state’s denial of diversity
The birth of the PKK in 1978 challenged a truth that the creators of the Turkish state had defended to the bitter end: The non-existence within Turkey’s borders of other peoples and nationalities, such as Assyrians and Armenians, and other religions not linked to Sunni Islam, which is the majority in Turkey: Yazidis, Alevis, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. Today, an estimated 20 million Kurds live in the south-east of the country, making up 28 percent of the total population.
In 1980, Turkey suffered a bloody coup d’état. The military, the true puppet masters of power, took over the reins with a simple aim: to crush all left-wing resistance and to liberalise the economy in a similar way to the military dictatorships in Latin America. A year earlier, the PKK had warned of the possibility of a military coup. In July 1979, Öcalan moved to Syria and then to Lebanon. In September of that year, the first PKK group travelled to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. They received military training, mainly from Palestinian organisations.
Between 1980 and 1981, groups of Kurdish fighters arrived in Lebanon to receive training but also to strengthen the political activities of the party. The first PKK congress was held on Lebanese territory in 1981. When Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Kurdish guerrillas had one of their first baptisms of fire. During that year of fighting against Israeli troops, 11 PKK fighters were killed. In May 1982, Öcalan attended the funeral of his comrades in Lebanon. Armed struggle was inevitable for the PKK. And 1984 was going to be the year of the big struggle, the litmus test that would trigger the full resistance.
In 1999, Öcalan was abducted in Kenya on his way to South Africa, where he had been offered refuge. An operation by the Turkish intelligence (MIT), the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, commonly known as Mossad, thwarted this possibility.
The Kurdish leader was taken to Turkey where he was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole when Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002 with the aim – so far unfulfilled – of joining the European Union (EU).
Öcalan’s manifesto: A blueprint for Kurdish liberation
During his trial, Öcalan wrote his defence, which was later published in five volumes under the title “Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization”. This comprehensive work by the PKK leader covers a wide spectrum, beginning with an analysis of the earliest stages of human civilisation. It extends to his contemporary reflections and political ideas, introducing concepts such as “democratic confederalism” and “jineolojî”.
In his Manifesto, he delves into history from 6,000 BC and explores profound philosophical ideas, some of which may be difficult to grasp. He takes a critical look at the historical exploitation of women, a situation he argues continues to this day. He also discusses the Kurdish movement’s adoption of a new paradigm known as “democratic modernity”.
This paradigm seeks to establish a form of communitarian socialism with women as the central political force, a commitment to environmental protection and a vision of harmonious coexistence between different peoples, religions, cultures and beliefs.
Öcalan’s writings not only aim to dismantle “capitalist modernity” but also serve as a scathing critique of the nation-state structure, whether capitalist or socialist, imposed on the Middle East based on European models.
Öcalan wrote the Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation in prison, without any reference material, but with the aim of synthesising the history and struggle of the Kurdish people, which he wanted to equip with new tools for its liberation. The Kurdish leader elaborates on democratic confederalism, the PKK’s new paradigm, and reaffirms his anti-state stance, which has been heavily criticised since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). By emphasising that the more democratic the daily practices and organisational politics of society are, the deeper socialism and freedom will be, his defence became a great roadmap for the liberation of Kurdistan.
Since 2012, Öcalan’s theory of democratic confederalism has been put into practice in Rojava. It was built amidst wars of aggression, massacres, successes and failures, with the intention of creating a society in which people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds live together on the basis of direct and inclusive democracy.
Peace interrupted: Collapse of talks
Terrorist, baby killer, murderer, stateless person, blasphemer – these are some of the labels that the Turkish state has applied to Öcalan. In Turkey, anyone who shows the slightest sympathy for Öcalan is accused of being a member of a “terrorist organisation”. And the judiciary will inevitably prosecute anyone who questions the conditions of Öcalan’s imprisonment. Speaking his name in Turkey or Iran almost certainly means being imprisoned.
In July 2015, the Turkish government unilaterally broke off peace talks with the PKK. Prior to that, for 30 months, the guerrillas had respected the ceasefire and had tried, through representatives and through Öcalan himself, to hold talks that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government was actually never interested in. After the collapse of the short-lived peace process, the full force of the state was focused on the repression and imprisonment of activists of Kurdish parties as well as those of the Turkish left.
Commenting on the end of the peace efforts, Öcalan had said that “the state ended the process”.
“We made no mistakes in the resolution process and we could have fulfilled everything that was asked of us. If the state had agreed to continue the process, we would have fulfilled all our responsibilities one by one,” he added.
Incommunicado since March 2021
It was in March 2021 that Mehmet Öcalan was last able to communicate with his brother. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kurdish people once again demanded to see their leader and to know his state of health, after versions spread on social media that the Kurdish leader had died.
The communication between the Öcalan brothers lasted barely five minutes. In the blink of an eye, the line went dead. Before that, the Kurdish leader had wasted no time in criticising his brother, saying: “If we’re going to meet, we’ve got to meet within the legal framework. You cannot allow such a phone call to take place after a year”.
“What you are doing is very wrong. The state is acting illegally and so are you. It is not legal and it is not right. It is not acceptable. It is also very dangerous. Do you realise what you are doing? I want my lawyers to come and talk to me. Why don’t they come here? If there will be communication, it should be with the lawyers. Because this situation is as much a political one as it is a legal one,” he insisted.
When the line went dead, Mehmet was told to wait. Öcalan’s brother waited for another 15 minutes until an official confirmed that there would be no further call.
On its last visit to Turkey, in September 2022, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture was in İmrali but refused to report publicly on Öcalan. The reason given was (and still is) that the Turkish government must approve the publication of the committee’s report. The Kurdish leader’s lawyers submit monthly requests to the Turkish judiciary to visit their client, which are systematically rejected. The justifications are many and varied: the most common is that the climatic conditions in the Sea of Marmara are not ideal for travelling to İmrali.
*Leandro Albani is an Argentinean journalist with a specialisation in the Middle East and Maghreb. He is the author of several books, among them Revolution in Kurdistan (2014) and ISIS: The Army of Terror (2016).