This weekend at the Durham Miners’ Gala, the international theme will be the campaign to release Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish political prisoner and founding leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As we approach 20 years of Öcalan’s incarceration in solitary confinement on the island prison of Imrali, it is of huge significance that one of the biggest festivals of trade union and workers movements in Europe continues its tradition of international solidarity by putting front and centre the revolutionary who transformed the Kurdish liberation movement.
Emblazoned on countless flags carried on any Kurdish demonstration in the world, the name Abdullah Öcalan may not be familiar to many visitors at this year’s Gala. Born in Urfa in 1948 into a poor, rural family, he moved to Istanbul and then Ankara as a teenager, like many Kurdish students encouraged to leave the Kurdish south-east of Turkey as part of the state’s assimilation plans. But instead of assimilating, young Kurds became more conscious of their Kurdish identity and the discrimination faced by Kurds in Turkey as thousands of Kurdish peasants moved to the cities for work. This was the first generation born after the great Kurdish rebellions of the 1920s and 1930s which had been harshly repressed and bloodily defeated. Socialism was spreading especially amongst those who had spent time in Europe where the student movement was taking off. The new Turkish Socialist Party (TIP) became popular with Kurds and although the rewritten constitution of 1961 allowed freedoms of association and the right to strike, Kurdish newspapers and magazines were shut down by the state and their writers charged with communism or separatism.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani had returned from Soviet exile. Barzani was seen as a leading figure in Kurdish nationalism, having led the revolt in Iraq in the 1940s and helped defend the Soviet-backed Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan, the first – albeit short-lived – Kurdish independent republic. Inspired by this, Turkish Kurds formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey, the first Kurdish nationalist party since the state crushed the last rebellions in 1938. However, it remained broadly unpopular, replicating Barzani’s brand of nepotistic and clientelist bourgeois nationalism. Increasing agitation, workers’ strikes, Kurdish assertion of cultural rights, and revolutionary activity culminated in a 1971 military coup which brought in martial law. It was at this point that the creation of an underground, revolutionary Kurdish movement became inevitable. As thousands of politicised students and workers were arrested and imprisoned under martial law, as completely legal organisations were shut down by the state, the constraints of Turkish “democracy” became clear. At the same time, the lack of understanding of the Kurdish Question by the Turkish left impressed upon Öcalan the need for a Kurdish national revolutionary movement. In 1972, Öcalan was arrested for the first time, for protesting against the harsh police and judicial treatment of Turkish revolutionaries who were subsequently hanged: Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, and Hüseyin İnan, who became hugely important martyr figures for the Turkish and Kurdish movements. Gezmiş was a young, handsome Marxist-Leninist who had trained with the DFLP and PLO in Jordan. His final words before execution emphasised the importance of brotherhood between the Kurdish and Turkish liberation movements.
This all laid fertile land for the growth of a revolutionary Kurdish nationalism to be nurtured by Abdullah Öcalan and the founders of the precursor of the PKK, the Kurdistan Revolutionaries. In prison, he had been held with members of the student revolutionary organisation Dev-Genc which had a huge impact on the formation of his ideology, like many political prisoners stating that for him, “prison was a school on advancing the political struggle.” And like many revolutionary struggles, the PKK when it was officially formed in 1978 found itself as the only organisation willing and able to take up arms against the violent repression of the Turkish state and its useful allies, the fascist Grey Wolves paramilitary group. Whilst others hesitated because they saw the conditions in Turkey – still semi-feudal, a colonial satellite for American imperialism – as not ripe for revolution, Öcalan’s PKK took action, launching itself officially in November 1978 in resistance and defence of Kurdish regions facing state repression and murder.
The role of women in the Kurdish liberation movement will be known to many people, particularly after the YPJ dedicated the defeat of ISIS in its capital of Raqqa in October 2017 “to all the women of the world” alongside a huge banner of Abdullah Öcalan, crediting his ideology and movement building for the successes in Rojava in creating a feminist, multi-ethnic, democratic, co-operative society. From the start, women influenced Öcalan’s ideology and transformed the PKK, particularly Sakine Cansiz, one of the few women founding members. And the support for Öcalan and the PKK amongst Kurds in Syria has deep roots. Syria has provided refuge to the leadership since the early 1980s until an assassination attempt on Öcalan in 1998 left his position untenable – although the Assad Sr regime had tolerated the PKK’s presence, the Ba’ath Party’s anti-Kurdish economic and industrial policies intensified in the neoliberalising period of the early 2000s. In 2003, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) formed in Northern Syria following the democratic confederalist principles of Abdullah Öcalan – after the regime withdrew from the Kurdish regions in the north of Syria, this allowed the PYD to govern following these principles, a combination of council communalism, co-operative-based economy and strong ecological values: essentially a form of primitive socialism in a region still bound by feudal cultural and economic relations.
After threats against the state and assassination attempts, Abdullah Öcalan was asked to leave Syria in 1998, rejected from Greece and then Russia, he tried to claim asylum in Italy. After failing and returning to Greece, and then Kenya, he was betrayed by Greek guards and handed over to the Turkish secret services who transported him back to Turkey. This post-Cold War era led to the weakening of many radical movements unable to seek support from the major socialist states - in 1995 the PKK had dropped the hammer and sickle from their flag but kept the star, acknowledging the fall of the Soviet Union. The involvement of the United States, Israel and Turkish secret services in the capture of Öcalan indicates the danger he posed as the popular leader of an anti-colonial liberation movement in NATO’s most important Middle East member state. For an idea of the influence Öcalan has on Kurds around the world, there is video footage from BBC News after his arrest, when Kurds in London protested outside the Turkish embassy and one woman even set herself on fire, shouting “Bijî Serok Apo” (Long live “Serok Apo” – Apo being an affection, avuncular nickname given to Öcalan and Serok meaning Chairman) as she was carried into the ambulance. In Berlin the Israeli Consulate was attacked by Kurds protesting Mossad involvement and 3 protesters were shot dead by Israeli security, with a further 14 injured.
Öcalan is currently serving a life sentence in solitary confinement on Imrali Island. Over 1,000 Turkish security personnel are stationed around him and he is allowed no contact with the outside world; not even with family or lawyers. The last time any contact was consented by the Turkish State was in September 2016. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey violated articles 3,5 and 6 of the European convention of human rights by granting Öcalan no effective remedy to appeal his arrest and sentencing him to death without a fair trial. His request for a retrial was refused by Turkish courts. There is a huge concern for Öcalan's health and security today amongst the Kurdish community and their friends, whilst the UN and European Council continue to disregard the pleas.
It’s clear that imprisoning Öcalan will never resolve the Kurdish Question, an issue which has plagued Turkey since the foundation of the state and permeates the pernicious Turkish nationalism or both Islamists and secularists alike. Attacks on Kurdish towns and cities by the Turkish army in 2015 after the autocratic President Erdoğan lost his parliamentary majority ended the Turkey-PKK ceasefire as militants sought to defend Kurdish areas under attack. Thousands of Kurdish and Turkish revolutionaries joined the YPG forces in their fight against ISIS fascism, breathing new life and international recognition into the Kurdish revolutionary struggle. International solidarity is vital – many Kurds look to the anti-apartheid movement as inspiration for the campaign to free Öcalan with its successful free Mandela campaign – indeed, before his death last year, Mandela’s lawyer Essa Moosa campaigned for Ocalan’s release and both the ANC and South African Communist Party have continually supported both the PKK’s struggle and the campaign to free Öcalan. With the support and pressure of the international workers’ movement, Öcalan will be freed, and the authoritarian regime in Turkey will fall.