On 25 June 2012, Kurds began a vigil outside the Council of Europe in Strasbourg calling for freedom for the imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Through summer and winter, the vigil has been held every day since. Each, week a group comes from a different place in the Kurdish diaspora.
Millions of Kurds across the world regard Öcalan as their political leader as they struggle against cultural suppression and physical oppression. He has also brought hope for a better world to people of all backgrounds through political ideas that have demonstrated their potential to transform society.
Öcalan’s influence continues to grow, but for more than half the time since he founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with a group of friends in 1978, as its undisputed leader, he has been held in almost total isolation in a Turkish prison. His abduction and incarceration were the result of an international plot led by the CIA. His trial, sentence, and prison conditions have all been shown to be in breach of international law. But international powers do little to intervene.
The Council of Europe, of which Turkey is a member, is the organisation that oversees the protection of human rights in Europe. The vigil demands that they take action – initially against prison isolation that amounts to torture, and ultimately to support the release of a man who, should the Turkish government ever agree to talk, has long been ready to negotiate a peaceful solution.
The Turkish state has always attempted to assimilate the Kurds out of existence and has met all resistance with brute force. The PKK was founded in response to the oppression facing the Kurds – economic oppression in a deeply unequal society combined with intolerance of Kurdish cultural identity – that amounted to an internal colonialism. The PKK turned to armed struggle because the state allowed no possibility for political routes to change, and that is still the case. Pro-Kurdish political parties are shut down and thousands of politicians and activists are in prison; and the PKK’s many ceasefires and attempts at negotiation have been met with government intransigence and further repression.
Öcalan and the PKK are no longer seeking a Kurdish state. They have developed their ideas in the light of historical experience, and Öcalan’s writings from his prison cell have formed the core of a new political philosophy. This aims to create a society run by and for local communities through grassroots democracy, and emphasises women’s freedom, peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities, and entropy with nature.
When the Kurds in northern Syria were able to establish autonomous local control, they began to put Öcalan’s ideas into action. The focus on communal engagement to meet communal needs has seen these developments welcomed as a concrete example of an alternative social approach that could replace the system now destroying our planet. Öcalan’s ideas have world-changing potential, but he is now denied all forms of communication.
The vigil is a permanent reminder of how a Council of Europe member state is acting in opposition to all that the organisation stands for. It is also a place that politicians can come and find out more and show their support, and a focus for mass demonstrations.