Beginning with the mass protests following Abdullah Öcalan’s capture, the Kurdish Freedom Movement has never stopped struggling for his release. That struggle has not yet succeeded in opening his prison gates, but it has played a central role in growing and consolidating the movement itself, and it has opened minds around the world to the existence and aims of the Kurdish Movement and to Öcalan’s ideas.
Kurdish communities everywhere observe a busy calendar of campaigning actions. Besides campaigns in response to immediate events and crises, there is no shortage of significant dates for commemorative demonstrations. The call for Öcalan’s freedom is a central part of all Kurdish Freedom Movement events, such as the Newroz (New Year) celebrations on 21 March, as well as of commemorations directly related to Öcalan’s life, such as the demonstrations on the anniversary of his capture on 15 February. It has become a tradition for Kurds from across Europe to march through Strasbourg on this day, and for young supporters, including internationalists from many countries, to precede this with a week’s ‘Long March’ across Europe.
Demonstrations portray Öcalan’s importance to a wider world, and also act as rallies for the movement, building new bonds and strengthening old ones. Öcalan has now been in prison for so long that many of the people on the demonstrations today were not even born when he was taken to İmralı.
A history of all the campaigns and solidarity work could fill a book. Below are a few highlights, and links to campaigning organisations.
There were, of course, already international campaigns and solidarity work before Öcalan’s imprisonment – such as Peace in Kurdistan, which was established in London in 1994 to campaign for Kurdish rights and a peaceful solution to the Kurdish Question. Their activities include publishing reports and news bulletins, and lobbying the UK parliament.
The, Köln-based, International Initiative ‘Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan’ was founded within a month of Öcalan’s capture. Its work to inform and lobby has included translating Öcalan’s writings and organising large international conferences to discuss his ideas.
In 2004, the Kurdish Question was given an international platform through the establishment of the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC). This was set up by an international group of civil society organisations with the aim of progressing Turkey’s entry into the European Union and Turkey’s concurrent acceptance of European rules on democracy and human rights. It provides commentaries and news updates, and – at first through the support of the Left group and now also the Social Democrats and the Greens – it has hosted annual conferences in the European Parliament in Brussels. It’s chairperson, Kariane Westrheim, noted in 2016 that, ‘while speakers in 2004 did not dare even to speak about the PKK or Abdullah Öcalan, this topic now numbers among the most crucial…’
In 2005, the Free Citizen Movement in Turkey initiated a signature campaign asking Kurds across the world to put their name to the statement ‘I, from Kurdistan, recognize Mr. Abdullah OCALAN as a political representative in Kurdistan’. Despite severe repression, which saw organisers detained and sentenced in Syria, Iraq, and – especially – Turkey, and signature lists confiscated, over three million signatures were collected.
Another signature campaign was started by supporters of the Kurdish struggle in South Africa in 2010 and taken up as a world-wide campaign by the International Initiative two years later. By the time it was concluded in 2015, over ten million people had signed its call for Öcalan’s release.
On 25 June 2012, the Kurdish Freedom Movement began a daily vigil for Öcalan’s freedom opposite the Council of Europe in Strasbourg – a permanent reminder to Council members that the Council is neglecting its foundational duty to protect human rights and the rule of law. The vigil is there every day, come rain or shine. It also serves as the focus for marches and demonstrations, and has welcomed visits from MEPs and Council of Europe members, many of whom have spoken publicly in its support.
2016 saw the first İmralı Delegation to Turkey, which was organised by the EUTCC and led by Judge Essa Moosa, an important figure in the African National Congress and one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers. These delegations, made up of people from different countries, submit formal requests to visit Öcalan, and although these requests are ignored, the delegations are able to meet with lawyers and human rights organisations, and draw up reports of the situation facing political prisoners in Turkey. Here is the 2022 report.
Also in 2016, two of the UK’s largest trade unions, UNITE and the GMB, launched a Freedom for Öcalan Campaign. The launch took place at the UK Parliament, where UNITE’s International Director, Simon Dubbins announced ‘we have broken through the taboo which has surrounded Öcalan’. The next year, the Trade Union Congress passed a motion calling for the release of Öcalan and for support for the campaign by affiliated unions. In 2018, fourteen major trade unions affiliated to the campaign, and in 2019, Freedom for Öcalan was the official theme of the Durham Miners Gala and the prominent campaign at the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival – two major national trade union events. There have been British trade union delegations to Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
In Italy, several cities have granted Öcalan honorary citizenship as a way of publicising and supporting his cause.
In March 2018, over two days in Paris, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal heard evidence of Turkish crimes against the Kurdish people. The Tribunal was established in 1979 to shine a light on issues not being addressed by the official organs of justice, and the hearing had been called to look specifically at the intense conflict that began in 2015. It also looked at the background to the conflict, and although Öcalan’s case was not the focus, it is intimately linked to the discussion.
Hunger strikes have been used many times in the Kurdish struggle – a measure of the Kurds’ lack of political options. In 2016, fifty HDP MPs started a hunger strike to call for an end to Öcalan’s isolation. After they had been on strike for eight days, Öcalan’s brother was allowed a short visit. The MPs called off their hunger strike – but no more visits were allowed.
In November 2018, Leyla Güven, who was in prison awaiting trial and was one of the MPs who had gone on hunger strike in 2016, announced the beginning of another hunger strike against Öcalan’s isolation. This was the beginning of a mass indefinite hunger strike that would be joined by over 8,000 people – mostly prisoners, but including fourteen men and women in Strasbourg and others in Wales and Toronto. In January, Öcalan was allowed a short meeting with his brother, but the hunger strikers were wary of a repeat of the previous experience. They didn’t call off the strike until 26 May, after Öcalan had been allowed two visits from his lawyers. He was allowed three more visits from his lawyers that summer, and then the door closed again.
Through all 23 years, Öcalan’s lawyers have pursued his case in the Turkish and international courts, and other lawyers from different countries have added their weight to the cause. There has also been support from academics, writers, and artists, and the International Initiative organises an Art for Öcalan campaign.
Other organisations campaigning for the Kurdish cause more generally include Rise up 4 Rojava, the recently formed Defend Kurdistan, and the campaign calling for an investigation into Turkey’s use of chemical weapons – as well as the many locally-based solidarity groups.
Young internationalists have travelled to Kurdistan – and especially to Rojava – to participate directly in the struggle and to learn from its ideas. Some have taken up arms and some of these have lost their lives. Others have given their support through the Internationalist Commune or by working for organisations such as the Rojava Information Centre.
And so the struggle goes on – for the respect of Öcalan’s human rights, and ultimately for his freedom, for the implementation of his ideas, and for a negotiated peace for Kurdistan and all Turkey.