Öcalan, Abdullah (1948–)

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Öcalan, Abdullah

Abdullah Öcalan is a Kurdish militant who, as leader of the Workers' Party of Kurdistan (PKK), led an armed campaign against the Turkish government until his capture and imprisonment in 1999.


Öcalan was born on 4 April 1948, to a Kurdish father and a Turkish mother in Ömerli, Turkey, a poor village near the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey in an area sustained by cotton crops. Known to many Kurds by his nickname Apo (uncle), Öcalan has noted that his family took their surname, which means avenger in Turkish, after a relative died in 1925 during a Kurdish uprising against the Turkish government. Öcalan was a religious Muslim as a youth. He attended school in Urfa, then worked in the land registration department in Diyarbakir from 1960 to 1970.

Öcalan entered Ankara University in the Turkish capital in 1971 where he studied political science and became a Marxist. However, he was dismayed that Turkish leftists did not take up the Kurdish cause. During his student years, Öcalan was jailed for seven months in 1972 for involvement in antiregime political activities. After his release and expulsion from the university, Öcalan collected a group of roughly thirty Kurdish and Turkish cohorts in Lice, near Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey. In November 1978 they settled on the name Workers' Party of Kurdistan (Turkish acronym: PKK).


Under Öcalan's leadership, the PKK began an armed campaign aimed at Kurdish independence from Turkey. It reportedly began killing members of rival groups as well as Kurdish landlords and pro-government tribesmen, and blew up schools, which the group considered to be aiding the Turkish cause by not allowing Kurds to speak their native language. To help finance their cause, PKK militants robbed banks and jewelry stores, and were suspected of running an international drug ring to raise funds as well. In the midst of an overall atmosphere of upheaval in politics, Turkey declared martial law in the region in 1978. In 1980 about 5,000 people were killed in clashes between the left and right factions that ended in an army coup. Öcalan and his followers fled to Damascus, Syria, allowing President hafiz al-asad to use their presence as a way to agitate Turkey, with which Syria had long been embroiled in water and territorial disputes. From there, Öcalan freely traveled around Syria, Lebanon, and northern Iraq, where he was known for dressing in army fatigues as he ran boot-camp-style training for Kurdish guerrillas.

In 1984 Öcalan launched a full-scale guerrilla war against Turkey in hopes of establishing an independent, Marxist state for Kurds. Throughout the years, more than thirty-thousand people were killed in the fighting, including PKK guerrillas, Turkish military, political officials, and civilians. The PKK assassinated authorities, kidnapped foreigners, and bombed hospitals and schools. Based on these actions, Turks characterized Öcalan as a ruthless mass murderer while many Kurds revered Öcalan as a brave revolutionary. Support for the Kurds grew around Europe as well, despite Öcalan's tactics, due in no small part to evidence of widespread torture of Kurds by Turkish police, and the forcing of hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes, leaving them nowhere to go.

In August 1998 Öcalan declared a cease-fire—not his first—and appeared to be pressing for a new moderation. He insisted that the PKK would no longer use violence and announced that the group no longer sought outright independence from Turkey. Whether he was sincere or not was debated; however, the new stance won him a larger base of support in Europe. At the same time, Turkey for some years had been slowly moving toward acceptance of the Kurds and had relaxed bans on Kurdish language and culture. However, on 20 October 1998 Turkey threatened to invade Syria unless it gave up Öcalan, and Syria subsequently signed an agreement with Turkey saying that it would no longer support the PKK and recognized it as a terrorist organization. Öcalan had to leave Syria and was sent to Athens, Greece, and then Moscow, Russia, where he was refused asylum.


Name: Abdullah Öcalan

Birth: 1948, Ömerli, Turkey

Family: Wife, Kesire Yildirim (divorced)

Nationality: Turkish (Kurdish)

Education: B.A. studies, Ankara University (unfinished)


  • 1960: Works at land registration department, Diyarbekir
  • 1971: Enters Ankara University
  • 1978: Forms Workers' Party of Kurdistan (PKK)
  • 1984: PKK launches full-scale war against Turkish government
  • 1998: Declares cease-fire; is expelled from Syria
  • 1999: Captured in Kenya, flown to Turkey, tried, and sentenced to death
  • 2002: Death sentence commuted to life imprisonment
  • 2006: Calls on PKK to observe a cease-fire

On 12 November Öcalan deplaned in Rome, Italy, and surrendered to authorities at the airport, which surprised Italian officials. They put him under a kind of house arrest, but later that month he was set free as they mulled over his request for refugee status. The situation was complex: Turkey and Italy were close North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies, but once Öcalan arrived, the mood chilled, since Italian law prevents extradition to countries with the death penalty, which Turkey had at the time. In addition, many Italians supported the plight of the Kurds, and the PKK had ties to some leftists in the Italian parliament. Subsequently, protestors in the Turkish capital burned Italian flags and demonstrated outside of Italian-owned Benetton apparel stores. By late December, Italy ruled that they would not send Öcalan back to Turkey for trial and that he was free to leave, which further incensed Turkey. The United States, meanwhile, supported Turkey's request for extradition and described Öcalan as a terrorist.

Öcalan left Italy in January 1999, after the Italian government, facing pressure from Turkey, sent him back to Russia. Germany could have requested extradition because he was wanted for several murders there as well as some terrorist attacks in 1993, but German prime minister Gerhard Schröder, fearful of unrest among the half-million Kurdish immigrants there, did not press for it. Then, Greek foreign minister Theodoros Pangalos extended aid to Öcalan and he was shuttled to Athens. Once he landed, though, Greece, not officially ready to give him refugee status, had no viable destination for Öcalan, so he was then sent to Nairobi, Kenya, with the understanding that it was a temporary hold for him while Greece attempted to arrange a permanent haven in a different African nation. Greek ambassador to Kenya George Costoulas kept him at his villa, but Öcalan was soon spotted by American Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. The next day, Kenya ordered Öcalan out, and he made plans to be transported to the Netherlands.

However, on 15 February 1999, Öcalan was arrested and whisked away, reportedly by Kenyan police, who then handed him over to Turkish commandos. He was placed on a plane and flown to Turkey, which jubilantly announced his capture. Kurds were outraged at what they saw as a betrayal by Greece, although the Greek government denied cooperation with Turkey. Several reports indicated that American surveillance may have given away Öcalan's whereabouts (although the government officially denied this), and other sources suggested that Israel may have had a hand in the arrest. The exact circumstances were unclear, but Öcalan was blindfolded, handcuffed, and flown to Turkey. Photographs of the shackled, sweating leader were broadcast around the world.

The Turkish government detained Öcalan in a prison on the island of Imrali, about 35 miles off the coast from Istanbul, in the Sea of Marmara. Kurds protested internationally; some rioted and destroyed offices in Europe, others set themselves on fire in various cities across Europe. In March, even though he was in custody, Öcalan was reelected as chairman of the PKK. On 31 May 1999 his trial for treason began, and he immediately apologized for his past and offered an end to the war in exchange for allowing the PKK to function as a political party. The European Court of Human Rights protested Öcalan's trial, stating that the Turkish court system was inherently biased because one of the three judges was appointed by the military. That Turkey was desperate to join the European Union (EU) complicated the trial and sentence. Turkey long was under fire by the EU for its human rights record, its treatment of the Kurds, and that it still maintained the death penalty—something that would bar it from membership in the EU. Still, the case pressed on for four weeks, and he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Many Turks rejoiced, whereas Kurds retaliated with escalated violence and killings.

In August 2002 Turkey abolished the death penalty. Öcalan's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He remains under heavy guard on Imrali Island, and is the only prisoner remaining there. He has claimed to have abandoned revolutionary Marxism, advocating instead a federal democratic union between Turks and Kurds. The PKK, which had observed a cease-fire from 2000 to 2004, resumed armed attacks. In September 2006 Öcalan called on it to cease such armed activities.


Among some Kurds, Öcalan is seen as a brave freedom fighter who battled for basic civil rights and a homeland for the Kurdish people. He also found support among European leftists and Kurdish communities in Europe. However, Turkey long considered Öcalan a terrorist and claimed that the PKK was responsible for over five-thousand civilian killings, including women and children. The EU and the United States also considered the PKK a terrorist organization.


Öcalan remains an extremely divisive figure in Kurdish and Turkish history. He and the PKK certainly played a major role in Kurdish politics within Turkey. Yet the PKK's war against the Turkish government has not translated into an independent Kurdish state or even a federal solution, and his ideological twists and turns make him a complex figure. The war proved extremely costly and disruptive, and even influenced Turkey's relations with the EU and post-Saddam Hussein Iraq (because of Turkish raids on PKK units operating in Iraqi Kurdistan). Exactly how history will record Öcalan and his impact remains to be seen.


Öcalan, Abdullah. Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilization. Translated by Klaus Happel. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2007.

Özcan, Ali Kemal. Turkey's Kurds: A Theoretical Analysis of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan. London: Routledge, 2005.

                       updated by Michael R. Fischbach