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CNN International




Who is Abdullah Ocalan?

"Our movement is the liberation movement of the Turkish people," Ocalan once said  

This story was originally written for in 1999 as part of the coverage of the trial of Abdullah Ocalan.

(CNN) -- To the majority of the Turkish people, Abdullah Ocalan is a child murderer and terrorist whose violent campaign for Kurdish autonomy threatens the very foundation of modern-day multiethnic Turkey.

But for many Kurds -- both in the impoverished southeast of Turkey and abroad -- Ocalan and his banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are battling Ankara's iron-fisted oppression of Kurdish culture, identity and political aspirations.

So who is this man who has spent much of his life outside Turkey and now may be executed for his campaign?

graphic Ocalan trial

  • Overview
  • Ocalan profile
  • PKK profile
  • Kurdish question
  • Arrest timeline
  • Where are the Kurds?
  • Key dates
  • Photo essay
  • Recent stories
  • TIME recent stories

A number of biographical dates and developments have been reported repeatedly by Turkish, Kurdish and international media.

Ocalan was born in 1948 in the village of Omerli in southeastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border.

He became politically active during his university years in Ankara, where he studied political science but dropped out. By 1973 he had organized a Maoist group whose goal was a socialist revolution. He founded the PKK in 1978 as an extreme-left nationalist group that launched a war against the Turkish government in order to set up an independent Kurdish state along Marxist lines.

Ocalan fled Turkey before the 1980 military coup and lived in exile, mostly in the Syrian capital Damascus and in the Lebanese plains under Syrian control, where he set up his PKK headquarters and training camps.

In late 1998, under intense pressure from Turkey, Syria closed the camps and expelled Ocalan, who started an odyssey through various nations in search of political asylum. In February 1999, he was nabbed in Kenya after an undercover operation and spirited back to Turkey.

Ocalan: his mission

Ocalan faces death for treason
Ocalan faces death for treason  

Ocalan, a heavily built man with a thick black mustache, propagates a Cold War brand of nationalism mixed with Marxist-Leninist doctrine that in many ways belongs to another era.

"You must believe before everything else that the revolution must come, that there is no other choice," he is reported to have said in an address to a Kurdish youth rally in August 1998.

"You must say no to betrayal and denial. Even though I am 50 years old, I have never allowed myself to get old. I am going on with the struggle."

But the man who is said to speak very little Kurdish has gradually dropped his demands for Kurdish independence, saying the violent conflict can end if Ankara grants the Kurds autonomy or cultural and linguistic rights.

That retreat, some observers say, may well be linked to the Turkish military's success in destroying mucn of the PKK's power base both inside Turkey and across the border in northern Iraq.

Turkish journalists who have interviewed Ocalan have come away with the impression of a "megalomaniac" and "sick" man who has no respect for or understanding of the "superior values of European civilization."

"Everyone should take note of the way I live, what I do and what I don't do," a December 1998 edition of the Turkish Daily News quoted Ocalan as saying in one of his many speeches.

"The way I eat, the way I think, my orders and even my inactivity should be carefully studied. There will be lessons to be learned from several generations because Apo (Ocalan) is a great teacher," he is quoted as saying.

By many accounts from inside and outside Turkey, Ocalan is a dogmatic and tyrannical leader whose organization is involved in drug trafficking, robbery, extortion, arson, blackmail and money laundering.

Some international human rights monitors have put him on a par with former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet or war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Many international Turkey watchers agree that Ocalan wiped out rival Kurdish movements as well as potential personal rivals with ruthless determination.

According to the Turkish Daily News, Ocalan underlined his personal hunger for absolute power at the helm of the PKK in a party publication in 1991.

"I establish a thousand relationships every day and destroy a thousand political, organizational, emotional and ideological relationships. No one is indispensable for me. Especially if there is anyone who eyes the chairmanship of the PKK. I will not hesitate to eradicate them. I will not hesitate in doing away with people," he is quoted as saying.

Following Turkey's arrest of Ocalan, Kurdish supporters protested in several European cities
Following Turkey's arrest of Ocalan, Kurdish supporters protested in several European cities  

And yet, for PKK members and many of their supporters, both inside and outside Turkey, Ocalan is a hero: a determined leader who has been struggling against the cultural, economic and political deprivations imposed on the Kurdish people by Ankara.

"The name of Apo has been identified with the Kurdish people who have risen and are fighting for independence," a pro-Kurdish publication says of Ocalan, in line with many similar statements broadcast by the London-based Kurdish Med-TV station.

Relations warming between former enemies Greece and Turkey
January 21, 2000
Turkey delays execution of Kurdish rebel leader Ocalan
January 12, 2000

AKA Kurdistan
U.S. State Department - 1997 Human Rights Report on Turkey

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