Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers Party – PKK – has been held in total isolation on the Imrali island prison in the Sea of Marmara since 2002, when the death sentence passed against him after his capture in 1999 was commuted to life without parole.
The island is guarded by Turkish warships and attack helicopters equipped with surveillance instruments. Only prison guards set foot on the island; no visitors allowed. Ocalan’s only contact with the outside world is through heavily censored letters.
Yet, somehow, he has found a way of delivering a harsh warning to the Turkish government through the Internet edition of the Ozgur Politika daily. His followers, he said, would wait no longer than September 1 for the Turkish government to renegotiate the terms of the very partial amnesty granted Kurdish prisoners and rebels as the price for Turkish admission to the European Union.
“If (Turkey) does not change its attitude, they (PKK rebels) will look after themselves. Roads will be blocked, fighting will break out, the tourism industry will collapse. These actions are necessary for the rebels’ survival,” Ocalan said.
With Ocalan’s capture four years ago, his Kurdish followers withdrew to northern Iraq, halting their armed campaign for independence in southeast Turkey which exacted more than 36,000 lives.
Since Ocalan published his threat, movements have been sighted among his men in northern Iraq and Turkey. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report PKK terrorist networks have sprouted in Turkey’s main cities. The imprisoned leader is thought to control more than 5,000 Kurdish combatants, who have since been reorganized in paramilitary units under the new name of KADEK. They are commanded by his brother, Osman Ocalan, whose whereabouts are unknown. Some intelligence sources place him in a European country; others think he is hiding out in the mountain caves of northern Iraq with his men.
None of the PKK’s senior leaders and commanders has won the pardons or even the reduced sentences extended to the rank-and-file – certainly not Ocalan himself or the 100 Kurdish rebel commanders figuring on a Turkish military intelligence blacklist.
This means that if the movement accepts the limited amnesty, KADEK’s entire leadership will be exposed to capture and harsh punishment.
For members of the lower ranks, the death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, while life terms are reduced to 14 to 16 years in jail. Not surprisingly only 300 KADEK members have so far accepted the amnesty, which Abdullah Ocalan terms a Kurdish manifesto of surrender. Ocalan’s vow to rekindle the Kurdish rebellion is therefore no idle threat.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s analysts assess the threat as going well beyond the sporadic terrorist strikes that plagued Turkey before the PKK went to ground. They expect an uprising more on the lines of the Palestinian intifada against Israel, more ferocious and exacting a higher casualty toll on both sides.
If Turkey wishes to qualify for membership of the European Union in September 1994, it will face more demands for improvements of its human rights standards. EU leaders are demanding the withdrawal of the Turkish commando units pouring into the southern regions abutting Iraq which is inhabited by a large concentration of KADEK activists and supporters.
Turkish government officials and military chiefs have rejected the demand – for now. But the Turkish-Kurdish-European equation is in a state of flux (as will be show in the next article in this issue.) That complex relationship is likely to be decisive in determining whether a Turkish contingent will be dispatched to support US troops in Iraq and bear strongly on the fate of the Iraqi guerrilla war waged against the Americans.