[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Profile: Abdullah Ocalan
By Pam O'Toole
BBC News

Abdullah Ocalan
Hero or villain? Ocalan is known as 'uncle' by Kurds, 'terrorist' by Turks
Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan might face a retrial in Turkey after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his 1999 trial was unfair.

The issue has thrown Ocalan and his organisation, the PKK, back into the international spotlight, six years after he was convicted and jailed for treason.

For six years Abdullah Ocalan - once the most infamous man in Turkey - has been firmly tucked away from the public eye.

The sole inhabitant of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, the little contact he has had with the outside world has come through visits from his lawyers and family.

But Ocalan is still remembered - for different reasons - by both Turks and Turkish Kurds.

To many Kurds he is "Apo" or uncle, a symbol of their aspirations for greater cultural and political rights - or even autonomy or independence.

To most Turks he is a "terrorist", responsible for many brutal acts and described by the Turkish media as a "baby murderer".

Abdullah Ocalan was born in Omerli, in the largely Kurdish area of south eastern Turkey, in 1948. He founded the PKK in 1978.

Six years later, his Marxist organisation launched what was to become a 15-year armed struggle against the Turkish government for an independent Kurdish state.

PKK splits

More than 30,000 people died in that conflict. Many were civilians, squeezed between PKK militants and government forces. Many thousands of Turkish troops were tied up pursuing the PKK across the mountains of east and south eastern Turkey and - on occasion - into Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, where the group had set up bases.

Ocalan supporter in Nicosia, Cyprus
Kurds have celebrated the European Court ruling
During the 1980s and 1990s, when the group's military campaign was at its peak, Ocalan was synonymous with the PKK. His was the name and face everyone knew.

When he was captured in Kenya in 1999, his moustachioed figure was prominent on banners carried by Kurdish demonstrators who poured onto the streets of Europe to protest.

When he was jailed, later that year, many wondered whether the PKK could survive.

Sometimes he appeared to be trying to direct the organisation from his jail cell; issuing orders through his lawyers for the PKK to lay down their arms and declare a unilateral ceasefire, swapping separatist demands for calls for greater autonomy for his people.

His followers obeyed and the conflict subsided for five years. The PKK tried, unsuccessfully, to rename and rebrand itself. Without Ocalan's strong, and some would say ruthless, leadership, it suffered a series of splits.

Effigy burned

But now both Ocalan and the PKK are back in the public eye. Last year, the PKK announced it was calling off its ceasefire and resumed low-level attacks against the Turkish government.

In recent months, those attacks have been escalating. Although the PKK is not the force it was in the 1990s, Ocalan remains a potent figure of Kurdish nationalism. His is the name that nationalist Kurds chant at demonstrations; his was the effigy burned by Turks at a recent Turkish nationalist rally.

Ankara is likely to be concerned that if it grants Abdullah Ocalan a retrial, he will use the occasion to make political points, as he did during his first trial, or maybe even try to rally support for the current PKK offensive.

Turkish nationalists, who already believe that Ankara has made too many political concessions to the West in its bid to start EU accession talks, would be particularly incensed. As far as they are concerned, Ocalan should have been hanged when he was originally convicted and sentenced to death six years ago.

That death sentence, as they remember well, was only commuted as part of Ankara's reforms aimed at joining the European Union.

Ocalan verdict angers Turkey
12 Mar 03 |  Europe
Kurds pay price for 'Mr' remark
05 Jan 04 |  Europe
Turkey detains Kurd leaders
22 Sep 03 |  Europe

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific