Who is Abdullah Öcalan?

1. Who is Abdullah Öcalan?
Abdullah Öcalan was born in 1949 to impoverished parents in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey in the village of Amara (Ömerli), near Urfa. Upon graduating from high school, he worked in the municipal land records office in Diyarbakir, then went on to study political science at Ankara University. In the wake of the 1971 military coup, the situation of the Kurdish people was becoming almost unbearable—the Turkish state was denying them the right to their own identity and culture. So Öcalan and other students began to conduct research on the Kurdish question.
In 1978 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded, led by Öcalan for the next 21 years. He wrote many lectures and books about the culture and situation of his people in terms of philosophy, religion, gender equality, and ecology. From the outset, he developed concepts for seeking a peaceful coexistence of the peoples in the Middle East. 
In 1979, as another military coup loomed in Turkey, Öcalan left the country. From abroad, he continued to lead the PKK’s political activities. The 1980 coup had devastating effects. Hundreds of thousands were detained and tortured systematically, on a large scale. The PKK organized an armed resistance and initiated a guerrilla war in 1984. In the early 1990s, aware that a military solution to the conflict is not possible, Öcalan began to focus on a political solution.
The Turkish state, however, did not reciprocate the PKK’s unilateral ceasefires. More than 30,000 people died in the 1990s, most of them Kurds. State-controlled death squads murdered thousands and destroyed more than 4,000 villages, driving millions of Kurds to become refugees. Torture and serious human rights violations were widespread.
Abduction and Imprisonment
In Europe, efforts to promote a political solution to the Kurdish question have failed. Turkey and NATO exerted strong political pressure on Italy, where Öcalan stayed for three months. Thereupon he left Italy and, after an odyssey through several European states, arrived unexpectedly in South Africa. On February 15, 1999, he was kidnapped in Kenya, in an operation carried out by several secret services, and was extradited to Turkey. The kidnapping sparked worldwide protests and uprisings on the part of Kurds. At the same time, anti-Kurdish nationalism was promoted in Turkey, which led the country to the brink of civil war.
Trial and the Death Sentence
On June 29, 1999, after a brief show trial in İmralı, Öcalan was sentenced to death. The trial was later condemned as unfair by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2002 the death penalty was abolished in Turkey, whereupon the judiciary altered Öcalan’s sentence to “intensified life imprisonment” with no possibility of parole—in other words: imprisonment until the prisoner’s physical death. The ECHR condemned this punishment, too, as inhumane, but to date the consequences have been nonexistent.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) continues to play a crucial role for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan
Conditions of Detention on İmralı Prison Island
By European standards, Öcalan’s prison conditions are unprecedented. He faces a regimen of total isolation and arbitrariness. İmralı is located in the Sea of Marmara, between the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, on the border between Europe and Asia. The island is a restricted military zone. The crossing by ship is long and very exhausting for visitors. For Abdullah Öcalan’s first ten years on the island, he was the only prisoner there, guarded by more than 1,000 soldiers. In 2009 a new prison was built for him and five other prisoners. All the cells are designed for solitary confinement. Each prisoner has his own tiny yard facing the courtyard. The extreme height of the walls makes these yards look like wells.
Isolation and Arbitrariness in “the European Guantánamo”
Long-term isolation and solitary confinement are intended to break prisoners psychologically and physically through, among other things, sensory deprivation. Such conditions of detention are referred to as “white torture.” For eleven years, Öcalan was the only prisoner on İmralı. He was in solitary confinement from the start and was not allowed to touch anyone or shake hands with anyone. He is still unable to receive letters and is the only prisoner in Turkey without access to a telephone. He was permitted to receive visits from his relatives for only 30 minutes each month and from his lawyers for an hour each week. But the authorities have repeatedly blocked these visits, so months often pass with no visits. On several occasions, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) has severely criticized this blocking of visits.
In general, the prison regime on İmralı is highly arbitrary. For one thing, the attorneys’ visits are regularly bugged and recorded, with no legal basis. International human rights organizations sharply criticize Öcalan’s inhumane and human-rights-violating prison conditions. The CPT has written more reports about İmralı than about any other prison, and it has repeatedly denounced the solitary confinement conditions of Öcalan and the other inmates there. So İmralı is known as “the European Guantánamo.”
Öcalan’s Peace Initiatives
When the Kurdish movement shifted from a primarily military-oriented to a primarily political and peaceful strategy, Öcalan was the driving force behind the change. Ever since the first unilateral ceasefire in 1993, he has continually and urgently sought a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. In 1995 and 1998 he initiated further unilateral ceasefires. A major turnaround began in 1999 when, against great opposition, Öcalan persuaded the Kurdish movement to concentrate on seeking a peaceful solution and to withdraw all its armed forces from Turkey. So began the longest truce in the conflict’s history. It lasted five years.
Prison and Defense Writings
In prison, Öcalan wrote numerous books, most of which have been translated. At the İmralı show trial, in which he was sentenced to death, he made a defense speech in which he argued against Kurdish separatism and in favor of the peaceful coexistence of peoples within existing political borders. In later books he developed this argument further. Despite the inhumane conditions of his detention, Öcalan is doing his best to work toward a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. For decades, his impulses, visions, and strategies have had a decisive influence on Kurdish politics. This was particularly visible in Rojava / Northeast Syria, where a movement that he inspired built, during wartime, a democratic, multiethnic and multireligious community and successfully countered the attacks of Islamic State.
“Road Map” for Negotiations with the State
In 2009, Öcalan announced that he would draft a “road map” for peace and asked for suggestions. 
It sparked an extensive debate in Turkey. He completed and issued the “road map” on August 15, 2009, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the armed struggle. The document served as the basis for a process of dialogue with the state that was secret at the time.
Between 2009 and mid-2011, the Turkish government secretly sent delegations to İmralı to negotiate with Öcalan and to Oslo to meet with leading PKK members there (the so-called “Oslo Process”). Based on Öcalan’s “road map,” the parties agreed to three protocols. These protocols contained a step-by-step plan to end the armed conflict and make possible a political solution to the Kurdish question.
But the Turkish government subsequently decided not to implement this plan. Instead it expanded the waves of arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists, and in June 2011 it began massive military operations. In a further series of talks, Turkish state authorities conducted a direct dialogue on İmralı with Öcalan—the “İmralı process.” The state confirmed the existence of these discussions at the end of 2012. On January 9, 2013 , the Turkish secret service MİT murdered three Kurdish politicians, including PKK founding member Sakine Cansız, in Paris, which threatened to bring the talks to a standstill, but Öcalan still stuck to them.
At the Newroz festival in March 2013, Öcalan called on Kurdish armed units to withdraw from Turkey and expressed his hope for a democratization of Turkey. The armed units obeyed his  call, reigniting hopes for peace. In the following months, however, it became clear that the Turkish state’s only goal was to disarm the PKK and that it had no interest in achieving a political solution. The last moment in this so-called “peace process” came in February 2015, when an appeal for peace by Öcalan—the “Dolmabahçe Declaration” — was read aloud in the presence of the pice prime minister.
President Erdoğan, however, changed his strategy: he terminated the dialogue process altogether and initiated another military escalation. Öcalan’s isolation in the İmralı “maximum security prison” was intensified, and for years he had no contact with the outside world.
Honorary Citizenships
Öcalan is an honorary citizen of numerous cities and municipalities in Italy, including Milan, Palermo, and Parma.
The Political Dimension
Öcalan’s continuing isolation is a serious human rights violation, but since he is a political actor, it also has a broad political dimension. Kurdish society, as well as experts, regard him as a national leader and political representative of the Kurds. In Kurdistan and Turkey, it is common knowledge that a political solution is possible only in dialogue with Öcalan. Every Turkish government since 1999 has been aware of this fact and has held talks with Öcalan on İmralı, although none of the governments admitted it until 2010.
The government’s strategy of violence and tension will necessarily to lead to an impasse, and may well result in further fighting and unnecessary bloodshed. The only alternative to violence is dialogue. Öcalan has demonstrated time and again that he is ready for such a dialogue and is able to successfully lead it to a lasting peace solution.
Meanwhile, as an author and politician, Öcalan inspires millions of people in Kurdistan and around the world. He is one of our era’s most prominent political prisoners. After more than twenty years of imprisonment, his freedom is moving up on the global agenda. It must and will come—the sooner the better.