Abdullah Ocalan: Symbol of 100 years of Kurdish resistance

Green Left

John Tully
February 6, 2022

Since his kidnapping by Turkish military intelligence in Nairobi in
1999, Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has
endured almost 23 years of imprisonment. For much of that time he has
been confined on Imrali island, in the Sea of Marmara, without any
contact with family or friends.

His jailers hoped that by slamming shut the prison doors, the world
would forget about Ocalan’s existence. But for millions of Kurds and
their supporters around the world, Ocalan is a living symbol of
resistance to a century of oppression by the Turkish state.

According to the Turkish government, Ocalan is a terrorist. The
Australian government agrees, listing the PKK as a terrorist

The listing was originally made in 2005 by the John Howard Coalition
government after a visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocratic
Turkish leader. It has been periodically renewed since then, including
by Labor governments. The listing was made for purely opportunistic
political reasons. Government justifications simply do not add up.

The PKK is not and never was a threat to the security of Australia,
nor that of any other outside of the Turkish state. Several European
courts, including the highest Belgian court, have ruled that the PKK
cannot be treated as a terrorist organisation. Instead, it is a party
to an armed conflict with the Turkish state.

Under Ocalan’s leadership, the PKK launched an armed struggle against
the Turkish state in 1984. It has since declared several unilateral
ceasefires and, in 2013, Ocalan was permitted to join peace talks. He
continues to advocate for a peaceful solution to an intractable

Originally formed as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist party with the aim
of creating an independent Kurdish state, the PKK has since taken a
different approach under Ocalan’s intellectual guidance. Ocalan argues
that given the ethnic plurality of Turkey and the Middle East, the
solution to the century-long oppression of the Kurds and other
non-Turkish populations lies in what he calls “democratic
confederalism” — autonomy with full rights for all peoples.

This shift did not, however, cause the Turkish government to back away
from its determination to maintain Turkey as the ethnically pure
political-cultural organism envisaged by Kemal Ataturk at the time of
the inception of Turkish Republic in 1923. Ever since, the Kurdish
people have endured cultural and, at times, physical genocide.

In recent times, the Erdogan government has stepped up repression both
inside and outside the boundaries of the Turkish state. Thousands of
Kurds have been arrested and many killed, especially members of the
pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. Cities in heavily Kurdish areas
have been bombed.

The Turkish military has also invaded and occupied the mainly Kurdish
regions of Rojava in northeast Syria, ethically cleansing towns and
cities and collaborating with Islamist terrorists, including ISIS. The
Kurdish-speaking Yazidis over the border in Iraq have also been
targeted by Turkish troops.

Yet world governments and much of the media continue to avert their
eyes from Turkey’s war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Kurds have a well known saying that they have no friends but the
mountains. But they do have many friends around the world, including
in trade unions, left-wing and green parties, and other organisations
of civil society: people who have seen the injustice heaped on the
Kurdish people and are determined to help end it.

Key to fighting such oppression is to demand governments take the PKK
off the terror list and call for the immediate release of Ocalan, so
that he can lead the struggle for peace with justice for the Kurdish
people in Turkey and neighbouring states.

Prison has not broken Ocalan, nor stopped his brain from working. In
his prison cell, he has written a stream of original books and
articles dealing with many aspects of Kurdish freedom and broader
human emancipation.

Central to this is his insistence that “a society can never be free
without women’s liberation”. His watchword is that “you must believe
before everything else that the revolution must come, that there is no
other choice”.


[John Tully is a historian and activist with Australians For Kurdistan.]