Abdullah Öcalan was born to a poor family in 1949 in the village of Amara (Turkish: Ömerli), situated in the province of Urfa in the Kurdistan region of Turkey. Once he finished his primary and secondary schooling he progressed onto working as a civil servant in the city of Diyarbakir. From there he enrolled onto the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Ankara. Affected by the Turkish government’s apparent denial and suppression of the Kurdish identity and cultural rights coupled with their impoverished social and economic conditions, Öcalan decided to conduct research into the Kurdish issue along with his friends after the 1971 Military Coup. In 1978 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was established with Abdullah Öcalan being at its forefront until today. Whilst he focused his work primarily on the cultural and political rights of the Kurdish people, in numerous speeches and books Öcalan discussed philosophy, religion, women’s liberation and ecology and developed new ideas. He has from the outset advocated that the peoples of the Middle East live together in peace and harmony.
Öcalan left Turkey in 1979 because of the foreshadowing military coup. From abroad he continued to lead the political activities of the PKK. The devastating military coup in Turkey eventually took place in 1980, resulting in hundreds of thousands of detentions and widespread torture. The PKK prepared for armed resistance and started a guerrilla war in 1984. Realising early on that a military solution unlikely to succeed, Öcalan tried to shift the focus to a political solution in the early 1990s. However, unilateral ceasefires by the PKK were met with no response from the state. The 1990s saw the killing of more than 30,000 people, most of them Kurds. Thousands became victims of state -controlled death squads. More than 4000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, Kurds in their millions became refugees. Torture was widespread and an immense number of human rights violations of every kind were committed. In 1998, during yet another unilateral cease-fire, Turkey threatened Syria with war.
Öcalan left Syria and headed for Europe to promote a political solution. Italy, where he stayed for three months, came under massive pressure from Turkey and its NATO allies. Öcalan left Italy again and later headed for South Africa, but he never got there. On 15 February 1999 he was abducted in Kenya and handed over to the Turkish state following a clandestine operation backed by an alliance of secret services directed by their governments acting in close cooperation. The abduction sparked outrage and major protests from Kurds all over the world. Turkey saw an unprecedented rise of anti-Kurdish nationalism which brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Öcalan was brought to a prison island, Imrali, which had been evacuated. From 1999 to 2009 he was the sole inmate of the prison, living in constant isolation, guarded by more than 1000 soldiers. In prison he has authored numerous books in the form of submissions to various courts. 12 of them have been published. Some of them were translated into English, German and Italian. Several texts are also available in French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. On 29 June 1999, after a short trial, Öcalan was sentenced to death. The trial was deemed “unfair” by a Grand Chamber judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in 2005.
The death penalty was abolished in Turkey in 2002 and his sentence commuted into “aggravated life-long imprisonment” without the possibility of parole – in other words: prison until death. Since Öcalan was driven out of Syria in 1998, countless protests have taken place in Kurdistan, Turkey and abroad against his abduction, against the death penalty, against the isolation regime on Imrali Island, for Öcalan’s health, to support his political role and finally against the renewed total isolation since July 2011. Since the sheer number of protests makes it impossible to list them all here, only some of the more remarkable protests and campaigns are mentioned. Self-immolations Since 1998, numerous people in Kurdistan, in Turkish prisons and in Europe have protested against attacks on Öcalan and his isolation conditions by self-immolation. More than 100 people have died from their self-inflicted burns in the last 15 years. While Öcalan repeatedly strongly discouraged this most extreme form of protest, Kurds in their desperation have again and again chosen to sacrifice themselves. International Initiative “Freedom for Öcalan –Peace in Kurdistan”
The International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan” was founded immediately after Öcalan’s abduction to Turkey in 1999. A wide range of first signatories, among them 6 Noble Prize laureates and numerous MPs and MEPs, supported the founding statement. Focussing at first on the immediate threat of execution and later on the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey and the intolerable isolation conditions on Imrali Island, the International Initiative has ever since informed the public about Öcalan’s conditions and political initiatives. e International Initiative publishes Abdullah Öcalan’s works in several European languages in the form of books and brochures. 15 February protests Every year around 15 February, the anniversary of Öcalan’s abduction from Kenya, Kurds demonstrate in protest in Kurdistan and abroad. Tens of thousands of Kurds from all over Europe come to Strasbourg every year. Gemlik marches on 9 October, the anniversary of Öcalan’s forced departure from Syria in 1998, demonstrations are conducted in Gemlik, the town opposite of Imrali Island. These demonstrations have been violently attacked by fascists several times.