Protesters, bearing large images of Ocalan, called for the immediate release of the leader of the Kurdish PKK rebel group, who has been imprisoned by Turkey for more than a decade.------ Photo by Sherwan Muhsin/Rudaw.
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: Holding banners calling for the rights of Turkey’s ethnic Kurds, hundreds of demonstrators marched from the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil to gather in front of the Turkish Consulate on Monday, asking for the immediate release of the leader of the most influential Kurdish rebel group, who has been imprisoned by Turkey for more than a decade.
On February 15th 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was arrested by the Turkish intelligence in Kenya with the support of the Kenyan police. Since then he has been in solitary confinement on the isolated island of Imrali in Turkey’s Marmara Sea.
The protesters, bearing large images of Ocalan, were Kurds exiled from Turkey, who live here in Erbil’s Makhmour Camp, created by the United Nations for several thousand Kurds who have fled decades-long persecution due to their seeking of an independent Kurdish state and more cultural and political rights.
“We can’t live happily while Ocalan is jailed,” said 20-year-old Saiwan Mustafa, who was only nine years old when Ocalan was arrested. “We merely want more freedom. We don’t want a state because it will cause wars.”
The protest comes two days after a statement released by the leadership of Ocalan’s autonomy-seeking rebel group, threatening to end a unilateral ceasefire it had declared six months ago, if Turkey failed to reform its policies in relation to the Kurds, who live predominately in the southeast of Turkey.
The statement, seemingly inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, promised more armed resistance and protests, if Turkey’s Islamic-leaning ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, did not meet Kurdish demands for more cultural and political freedoms.
“We will all become PKK fighters if Turkey does not give us freedom,” said 20-year-old Layla Ahmed, wearing a heart-shaped pendant with a photo of Ocalan. She said her family had fled Turkey when she was two years old, after Turkish forces had burnt their village down.
However, Turkey has now implemented some economic reforms in impoverished Kurdish provinces and some cultural reforms, such as the establishment of a state-owned Kurdish-language television station, which attracts limited Kurdish viewers.
And, earlier last week, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said that Kurds and Turks were brothers and that their “blood and tears” should no longer be shed.
The PKK, which began armed resistance in 1984, is considered by Turkey, the United States and European Union as a “terrorist” organization.