Abdullah Öcalan’s Strategic Success on prison Island of Imralı
Civaka Azad and Mahmut Şakar.
Mahmut Şakar talked to Civaka Azad about his experience as Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan’s attorney.
On May 2, 2019, Öcalan’s lawyers had contact with their client for the first time since almost eight years. Another visit on the prison island of Imralı came to pass on May 22. Before these visits, altogether 810 requests for visit had been rejected since July 2010. With that, Öcalan holds the “European record” for confinement without access to any legal representation. The visits in May were won by a months-long hunger strike by activists and sympathizers of the Kurdish movement. The prohibition of visits that the defense team had been subjected too was lifted by a court on April 17, 2019. One month later, the Turkish Minister of Justice, Abdülhamit Gül announced that from then on, there would be no limitations for visits to Öcalan by his lawyers. In a joint declaration, Öcalan and his three fellow prisoners pointed to the urgent necessity of democratic negotiations for the solution of the conflicts in Turkey and the Middle East. The problems and wars in the region ought to be addressed not by violence, but by the “methods of democratic negotiations, beyond any polarization and culture of conflict,” Öcalan and his fellow prisoners Hamili Yıldırım, Ömer Hayri Konar and Veysel Aktaş demanded.
Civaka Azad talked about all this with Mahmut Şakar, a contemporary witness who actively lived through the time of the international plot that led to the arrest of Öcalan. He is one of the first attorneys who represented Öcalan after his abduction from Kenia on February 15, 1999. From 1999 to 2004, when he was disbarred, Mahmut Şakar visited Öcalan regularly on the prison island of Imralı. Between 1992 and 1997, he was active in Amed (Diyarbakır) as a member and chairman of the Human Rights Association (İHD) and after this he was chairman of HADEP in the province of Istanbul, and still later, he also functioned as the general secretary of HADEP. He has now resided in Germany as a refugee for more than ten years. There, he has founded, together with a number of German lawyers, the Association for Democracy and International Law (MAF-DAD e. V.), of which he is presently a board member. As a jurist and in connection with the work of this association, he is still addressing legal problems arising from conflicted area of the Kurdish question.
In February 1999, you were part of the first group of lawyers in the trial against Abdullah Öcalan. Can you recount some of the experiences you made when you met him?
After Öcalan had been abducted to Turkey in the course of an international plot aided by the CIA, Mossad, and other foreign secret services, we, as group of attorneys, took over his defense. At this time, the atmosphere was characterized by fear. Both within the Kurdish population and on the political level, the atmosphere was tense. Kurds were being lynched in open daylight. Apart from the repression of the state and the arbitrariness of the police, there were also assaults by civilian Fascist and nationalist goon squads. We as lawyers were under a massive public pressure. Some resigned in fear of their lives, while others were arrested. The president of the state, Suleyman Demirel, publicly doubted that Öcalan even needed legal representation because his guilt, and therefore, the verdict, were already preordained. The state pulled all the stops to prevent the formation of a group of attorneys and to deny Öcalan any access to lawyers. All of this led to widespread concern within the Kurdish society. Öcalan’s arrest and the lack of any news about his whereabouts led to a trauma in the Kurdish population. At the time, he had already been ten days in confinement before he was allowed to meet his lawyers.
Under these circumstances, we as a group of lawyers were given the mandate of the family and filed the application to be allowed the legally represent Öcalan. After my first applications had been rejected, I was finally able to visit him on March 26, 1999. Before my first meeting with him, he had already had two or three meetings with lawyers, until we finally met him as a group of four. For me, this was of course an extremely interesting encounter. The points he made were important for me – both in order to be able to understand Mr. Öcalan and in order to understand the dimensions of the international plot. Thus, he said to us: “I am trying to keep you alive. I am trying to keep my people alive. I am trying to bring my people safely from this bank of the sea to the opposite bank.” It was a very metaphorical mode of expression. Whenever I talked about this time later on, what crossed my mind was always a modern story of Moses in which a leader wants to protect his own tribe, his society, from a danger. I realized that the international community of states whose governments either tolerated Öcalan’s abduction (which was illegal according to international law) or directly participated in the plot actually opened the door to an impending genocide. This meeting made me aware of the danger with which the Kurdish population was confronted. For Öcalan, the issue was not his personal situation, his imprisonment, or his survival. For him the important thing was the fact that his people were in serious in danger. He was pondering what he could do against the threatening genocide. These things shaped the first meeting and were important for me to enable me to understand the international plot in all its dimensions.
The arrest of Öcalan was in fact an attempt to annihilate the political success of the Kurdish resistance movement and to destroy the revolutionary dynamic within the Kurdish population. Öcalan was quite conscious of the fact that the execution he was facing then would not be limited to him alone. He knew that it would be accompanied by the execution of thousands of other Kurds. The history of the Kurdish resistance has shown this. Thus, in the wake of the Sheikh Said uprising it was not only the leaders that were murdered, but tens of thousands of other people shared their fate with them. The Dersim Uprising was followed, not just by the execution of Seyîd Riza and his followers, but also by the murder of tens of thousands. Now, this historical reality was again an impending danger. Öcalan succeeded in breaking this cycle. He removed what the Kurdish people had already accepted as their fate. I want to state clearly that in the course of history, the Kurdish people has again and again rebelled against oppression and the denial of its identity and that, as a consequence of this, its leaders were murdered and massacres were perpetrated against the population. This has happened during the Sheikh Said Uprising, the Dersim Uprising, the Zîlan Massacre, and the Ararat Uprising. With the emerging resistance of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish society ran the risk of again arriving at such a critical point in its history. Mr. Öcalan made this clear to us in order to prevent this history from repeating itself. He calibrated his stance with the purpose of preventing a genocide. In think that his demeanor on Imralı as well as during the later negotiations had to do with this. At this point, it must also be mentioned that he had been pursuing peaceful approaches to a solution of the Kurdish question since 1993.
Already during the tenure of Prime Minister Turgut Özal, there had been indirect negotiations and ceasefires. Had Özal not died in 1993, this initiative for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question could have been successful. Since 1993, the resistance movement has been trying to solve the Kurdish question by way of negotiations. On Imralı, Mr. Öcalan has turned his efforts to achieve peace into his central political goal. He has countered the danger of a genocide that I have described above with a new peace initiative.
Twenty years ago, Abdullah Öcalan was, as the chairman of the PKK, abducted and imprisoned on Imralı. How would you evaluate his role today? What kind of changes has he undergone?
I had legally represented Mr. Öcalan, had regularly met him on Imralı, and had had the opportunity to have discussions with him during the most critical phases since the year 1999. I am one of the lawyers who have met him most frequently – for five years, until I was banned at the end of 2004. During that time, he presented, as part of his defense before the court, his thesis of the democratic republic. At the center of this was the goal to remodel the Turkish-Kurdish relationships in a democratic fashion and to bring into being a new Turkish republic in which the Kurds are recognized as a people, and to thus create a sustainable peace.
In order to enable an understanding of Öcalan’s role on Imralı, it is important to explain the larger frame of the international plot. The abduction of Öcalan was not something that Turkey carried out alone. At the center were the strategic interests of various states, particularly the ones of the great power USA. Turkey needed the know-how of foreign intelligence services which organized the plot; all by itself, it did not have the resources to organize an operation of this size. This is a very important aspect. The joint interest consisted in the goal to remove Öcalan from the Middle East and to smash the Kurdish dynamic, all in order to create a new Middle East in accord with one’s own ideas. Thus, the plot against Öcalan was followed by the US invasion in Iraq. After the intervention in Iraq, in 2004 George W. Bush presented the “Greater Middle East Project.” I think that the plot against Öcalan also had to do with the goal to obliterate the revolutionary dynamics in the Middle East in order to get a foothold in the region. The following developments have of course made this point even clearer. Many states have played a role in this plot, among them a number of EU states. Öcalan even declared that the role of Turkey merely consisted in brining him from Kenia to Turkey and to act as the prison warden. This intervention of foreign (great) powers dealt the Kurdish movement a heavy blow.
The policy of Turkey then was described with a few characteristic metaphors. Thus, it was said that the goal was “to separate the head from the body.” Once the head was separated from the body, the body itself was to be smashed. The head was Öcalan and the body was the Kurdish population as well as the Kurdish freedom movement. This strategy can be explained quite simply: Öcalan is arrested, incarcerated, or executed and with that, the emancipatory dynamic of the Kurdish society not just in Turkey, but also in Syria, in Iraq, and Iran will be step by step destroyed. Therefore, the international plot was never simply about Öcalan’s arrest alone, but rather pursued the goal to finish off the Kurdish resistance as a whole. This was not just the hope and expectation of the Turkish state alone. When one looks back at the press coverage in 1999, here, too, there is a recognizable hope that one had now gotten rid of Öcalan and that the whole matter was therefore finished. At this point, Mr. Öcalan explained that he had two possible paths in front of him. He wanted to either go on an indefinite hunger strike that would end with his death, or to develop – in the face of the danger of a genocide and the smashing of the revolutionary Kurdish dynamic – a different form of resistance. He also explained that he preferred to more difficult road of the two. The most difficult thing for him was to stay alive on Imralı. He said that that was more difficult than to die: “To just die would be a unique liberation for me. I live under conditions where every single day means death to me. But I’m experiencing this for my people.” From this point on, in my view he has been pursuing a dual strategy. He hasn’t formulated it in this way himself; this is my own assessment.
Already at one of the first meetings he posed the question to us lawyers: “Should I live or not?” Of course, this question surprised us very much. We told him that we, as his attorneys, of course wanted him to live. He said: “I’ve been thinking about this since the time they brought me here. Is it better for my people if I live or if I die? I haven’t been able to take a decision yet. Since I sat on that plane, I’ve been thinking about that question.” After a few months, he told us: “I have decided to live. Do you know why? First, if I should die, this plot will never be unmasked and understood. The Kurdish society will be unable to recognize its friends and its enemies. By staying alive, I want to bring this plot with all its links and connections to the light of the day. Second I want to stay alive in order to pursue a political line and to make this plot come to nothing.” After he had decided to focus on resistance, he pursued a dual strategy. The “Stance on Imralı” formulated by him on the occasion of the lawyers’ visit on May 2, 2019 is probably an expression of that strategy. As I already said, this is my own assessment and was not formulated by him in this way.
The first leg of this strategy was the following: Given the danger of massacres against the Kurdish population and the mounting chauvinism and nationalism in Turkey, the demands of the Kurdish movement had to be scaled down in order to put a brake on chauvinism, to reduce the pressure a little bit, and to thus create the basis for a compromise. This was meant to pave the way for a peaceful solution. The project of a democratic republic described in Öcalan’s defense writings puts its emphasis on language and culture. Furthermore, the issue was to open channels for dialogue and negotiations as well as to take some of the wind out of the sails of Turkish nationalism. This was attempted since 1999. He wrote the manifesto; he called, on August 2, 1999 on the guerilla to retreat; and following his appeal, peace groups from Europe and the Qendîl Mountains were sent to Turkey. With these steps, he wanted to push the state in the direction of a democratic, peaceful solution. Furthermore, in this way the pressure onto the Kurdish population could be ameliorated somewhat.
The second leg of this strategy was that Öcalan wanted to protect all the emancipatory successes of the Kurdish society. He wanted to develop a perspective for peace and to create the basis for an agreement. But at the same time, he protected the democratic, cultural, and political development of the Kurdish community for the application of a new, long-term line. He introduced a phase in which the whole society as well as the political arm of the movement and the guerilla could regain their breath. In a certain sense, he absorbed and stopped the cruel determination of the state and created a more moderate mood. In all of this, the central dynamics of the Kurdish society remained unharmed.
The Kurdish movement had been defined by its fixation to its leader Öcalan. He was arrested, but the Kurdish dynamic did not suffer any long-term harm. This has been one of Öcalan’s biggest successes after 1999. In my view, this has turned into the central stance on Imralı. Öcalan has reduced the violence of the state, opened the path to a dialogue, and protected the social, political, as well as cultural developments. This is an unbelievable strategic success. Öcalan knew that the body was to be disposed of and that the goal had to be to protect this body. The policy of the state aimed at separating the head from the body. But the head was so strong that it didn’t allow the body to be dismantled.
On Imralı, Öcalan has continued to develop his strategy and his political style. In the course of the last twenty years, he has step by step transformed himself into the key figure for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question. This was possible through his intellectual achievements and his philosophical works. He created an ideological framework for joint cohabitation. In my view, his most important contribution to this is the theory of the democratic nation which he describes in his last defense writings. I think that his position, which rejects nationalism and gives center stage to the democratic nation, is a milestone for Kurdish society. In his last defense writing, Öcalan explains that the most important aspect of the forty-year resistance is the realization of the theory of the democratic nation. In my view, this concept is a key contribution to the theory of the left and the socialist struggle, one that supplements the critical approach to the nation that always lacked in socialism with the theory of the democratic nation. In Rojava, we can now see the fruits of this endeavor in the creation of the autonomous self-administration in North- and East Syria. The paradigm Öcalan has been developing since 1999 is being put into practice there.
Furthermore, in his writings Mr. Öcalan has formulated a serious self-criticism of the PKK. He challenges his own practice in central points such as the state, violence, the national state, and nationalism and develops new approaches. As an alternative to the classical model of the nation state, he has developed the theory of the democratic nation and has thereby overcome his own nationalism. With the concept of legitimate self-defense, he cuts through the spiral of violence. The model of the nation state, he replaces by confederalism. He has developed counterproposals and has thus step by step developed a new paradigm. This has made his ideas attractive for broad social circles, including ones outside of the Kurdish community. Öcalan was imprisoned on Imralı as the chairman of the PKK and has become now, twenty years later, through his key role in peace politics and the concept of democratic confederalism, a leading personality for the peoples in the Middle East striving for freedom and self-determination.
His response to the plot is firmly based on his ideas and his philosophy. For that reason, I always say that even though he was “taken out of operation” in 1999 in order to weaken the influence of the Kurds in the Middle East, he has returned to that same Middle East years later with his thoughts, concepts, and finally, the Rojava revolution. He left Syria as a party leader, only in order to return as the pioneering thinker of a free, multiethnic, multireligious, and directly democratic society following a peculiar sort of “Third Way”. For that reason, the twenty years on Imralı must also be regarded as a time of resistance. Of course, für Öcalan this has also been a phase of isolation and repression – a life under torture –, but politically, this time must also be regarded as a phase of resistance within which the Kurdish movement and the society have restructured themselves. One primary result was that the nationalist currents in society has lost in importance and that the interest of the Kurdish society in the joint cohabitation of the peoples has deepened. Moreover, Abdullah Öcalan also succeeded in putting the Kurdish identity onto the international agenda.
Abdullah Öcalan is often defined through his role as a political leader. But by now, he has reached, particularly during his time on Imralı, an incredible intellectual acumen, which he has tried to express in the writings in his defense. He has left the role of the political leader behind. Quite obviously, on Imralı he would not be able to take on a classical political leadership role. His is an existence controlled by the state. More than one thousand soldiers guard the island. It was clear that he could not carry out the classical tasks of political representation, but he has now gained the role of a strategic leader. He has embraced the peoples with his thinking. He has developed alternative forms of politics. If somebody already has the capacity to do this from inside the prison walls, what will he be capable of outside of those walls? He had already penned critiques of real socialism before, looking for alternatives. But he could really work all of this out only on Imralı.
Under the conditions of a cell the size of 130 square feet, he has developed a new political culture, a new political consciousness, a new political strategy, and a new paradigm. In a place which is under the control of the state like no other, he was able to develop a non-state model of government and society which inspires both the peoples of the region and the Kurdish movement. He has developed a form of resistance that overcomes the space controlled by the state. I think that is also one of the most original sides of Öcalan. Unfortunately, this point is often misunderstood: Some people suspect that actually, the Turkish state is behind his every political move. This is a kind of thinking which sanctifies the state in an exaggerated way, puts it above everything else, and assumes that it controls even the smallest cell of the individual and his or her political actions. Of course, in physical terms the state completely rules over all of Imralı. But I can say that Öcalan has created a new space for political agitation: with the sympathy and the trust of millions of people as well as the political forces who act in tandem with him, by means of a policy that doesn’t address itself to the state, and by virtue of a relationship to the state that is characterized by tension.
How do you see the perception of Abdullah Öcalan in Europe, and particularly in Germany?
Politics as we know it emerged as a product of the West. Political parties, but also socialism, were developed as Eurocentric systems of thought. Phenomena such as the cult of personality, including Fascism, arose as parts of Western political culture. Here in Europe, people have always tried to understand political forms beyond their own ones from the angle of their own specific standpoint. I think that this approach is one of the decisive reasons for the flawed ways in which the Kurdish cause has been discussed and dealt with. The different significance of the political party and the political leadership in Europe on the one and in the Middle East, particularly in the Kurdish society, on the other hand could not be understood in this way. Moreover, I think that there has been no serious effort to understand the Kurdish movement. Discussions of the topic are mostly characterized by certain patterns and templates of thought. I have often experienced how the PKK was declared to be “Stalinist,” with the result of summary dismissal. In my view, this approach is Orientalist through and through, an approach where people regard themselves as the center of the world – and that is also true of the European left. They evaluate all other revolutionary dynamics through their own prism. These are very arrogant approaches which I reject.
Another important aspect is the fact that many leftist movements in Europe got to know the Kurdish freedom movement and the PKK through the Turkish left. Right from the beginning, the Turkish left responded to the Kurdish movement with nationalist reflexes. Important currents of the Turkish left developed under the influence of Kemalism and for these two reasons, the Kemalist perception of the Kurds in the name of the left was also reproduced in Europe. This would be my general observation. But even more important is the fact that people frequently don’t take notice of the transformation of the PKK. The PKK is no longer the party of 1993, and Öcalan is not the person of 1993 or 1999 anymore. A movement has emerged which renovates and continues to develop itself by the day. It began with real-socialist influences but has totally severed all ties to real socialism by now, developing a new left approach. How has the PKK managed to turn its resistance into a freedom movement with millions of followers, while all other leftist movements, including those in Turkey, have fallen apart? The circles I am talking about have no response to this question. Or to the question how the PKK has managed – in the Middle East, where there have been a multiplicity of social movements and social turnarounds in the course of the “Arab Spring” – to truly build a new social system in Rojava that radiates far across its borders.
Finally, I have to say that the perspective of the European left on the Kurdish movement and the PKK is either shaped by the criminalization by the German Federal Government or has adopted the approach of circles that adhere to the Turkish state doctrine. These leftists do not have a really original perspective of their own and do not try to develop an authentic understanding. The Kurdish side expects them to make a serious attempt at understanding. If they want to explain how a movement with a forty-year experience of resistance is becoming more and more international, is managing to include more and more peoples, and is influencing politics to an increasing degree, they must develop the wish to understand. The Rojava revolution has changed this state of affairs to a certain extent. But the ways these leftists deal with the Kurdish cause is still very deficient, in particular with regard to the person of Öcalan, whose perception among the Kurds is completely different. The perspectives in Europe and therefore also in Germany are very much characterized by prejudices and are thus frequently differ from the Kurdish reality.
How do you evaluate the first lawyers’ visit on Imralı after eight years? Abdullah Öcalan calls for a discussion of his Seven Points Declaration by all social circles. How do you assess the current phase?
Öcalan’s declaration to the broader public is important. If one looks closely, one can detect the traces of the political approach he has been pursuing for twenty years. He regards politics as the road to a solution, as the art to find a solution. He sees it as a path to develop solutions apart from and beyond war and he wants to pursue this goal more efficiently. He presents an approach which overcomes the social division and which is based on negotiations and the readiness for compromise. Once more, he proposes this democratic path to Turkey, Rojava, and Syria.
First of all, this declaration shows that Mr. Öcalan is pursuing a consistent line of resistance. In the thirty-minute conversation with his brother on September 11, 2016, he said, in turn referring back to 2013: “I am still on this side of the negotiation table and I am still prepared.” Whenever he is able to put it on the agenda, he declares his readiness to make a contribution to a democratic solution and stresses that in his mind, he is prepared to address the topic. After the end of the peace negotiations and the termination of the Dolmabahçe Agreement of 2015 by the current state president Erdoğan, the Kurdish population has had to suffer a new wave of state repression and unrestrained violence. In the years 2016 and 2017, Kurdish towns were once again destroyed by the military, the country is still under emergency rule, and the society as a whole is deeply divided. In Efrîn, an ethnic cleansing initiated by Ankara is taking place. These developments have once more clearly shown that isolation and war cannot lead to a solution of conflicts. The experiences of the last four years once more demonstrate that a policy based on war and violence and rejecting dialogue cannot create peace. Öcalan once more intervenes and underlines the necessity of a peaceful, democratic solution.
Second, the main feature of the political practice Öcalan has been developing for twenty years is clearly visible: His words are directed to the whole society. It is true enough that on Imralı, he has met from time to time with representatives of the Turkish state. Already in 1993, when he was still a free man, he had declared: “I am looking for a conversation partner. The state ought to delegate someone so that we can solve the problem.” He has always been open to talks with the state. He wanted to solve the conflict by means of negotiations. He has been trying this since 1993. During his time on Imralı, there have been the Oslo talks and the peace negotiations between 2013 and 2015. But his real addressee has always been the society as a whole, with its civil society and its political parties. Therefore, there have again and again been calls to the CHP, the HDP, and to the intellectual and other circles of civil society. If there is to be a democratic, peaceful solution, it can only come about by way of the active participation of these groups. Negotiating with the state and basing one’s political strategy solely on the state, regarding the latter as the basis for all of one’s actions are two very different things. Öcalan’s approach consists in a policy which is pushed forward jointly with the society, a policy which is made for the society and together with the society. One decisive factor for the success of his language of peace and his orientation towards a solution is the participation of the progressive circles in such a democratic road to a solution. This is also true on the international plane. Thus, all progressive groups in Europe should position themselves against the Turkish government, which has chosen the language of violence. They must demand and support the democratic path to a solution.
This position is currently represented by the Seven Point Declaration by Öcalan. In the center of this declaration is the wish to arrive at a solution beyond war and without polarization, but through compromises. This can only work with the participation of all social groups. Öcalan’s appeal was directed to all peoples, political parties, the civil society, intellectuals, but also to governmental circles who are open to a democratic solution and the path of negotiations. The reduction of Öcalan’s proposals to state policy alone has been one of the decisive mistakes which amounts to a denial of the political style of Öcalan, which on its part is based on the force of the society. Democracy is understood as participative and for that very reason, Öcalan had developed the formula “the state plus society” already in his very first writings in his defense. I think it is by looking at this formula that Öcalan can be best understood. At the center of his idea of the state is – society. And the further the democratic space is extended, the more the state will be weakened. The despotic character of the state regime will thus be pushed into the background exactly to the degree that the society becomes a participant in the decisions. But in order for this to happen, the society must actively demand this participation instead of waiting for the state to transfer these competencies to society voluntarily. This is an invitation to all to solve the social conflicts and the war in Turkey by democratic and peaceful means. It is a call that demonstrates that Öcalan has still kept his hope and his belief in peace. This call must be understood and responded to in the right manner.
In the same vein, the political parties and the groups of civil society in Germany should also push aside their worries and proceed, on the basis of the Seven Point Plan, to force Turkey to make steps in the right direction. The joint concern of the Kurdish and the Turkish population consists in peace, democracy, and the rule of the law. Each individual can make a contribution to reaching this goal. On the political plane, a new, more moderate language would certainly represent an important step.
Translated from German by Michael M. Schiffmann