The Kurdish national leader Abdullah Ocalan was born to a poor family in 1949 in the village of Amara (Omerli in Turkish), situated in the province of Urfa in North Kurdistan (southeast Turkey).

Once he finished his primary and secondary schooling he progressed onto working as a civil servant in the city of Amed (Diyarbakir in Turkish). From there he enrolled onto the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Ankara.

Affected by the Turkish government’s apparent denial and suppression of the Kurdish identity and cultural rights coupled with their poor living conditions, Ocalan decided to conduct research on the Kurdish issue along with his friends after the 1971 Military Coup.

In 1978 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established with Abdullah Ocalan being at its forefront until our current day. Whilst focusing his workings primarily on the cultural and political rights of the Kurdish people, in numerous speeches and books Ocalan discussed philosophy, religion, women’s liberation and ecology and developed new ideas. He has from the outset advocated for the peoples of the Middle East to live together in peace and harmony.

Ocalan left Turkey in 1979 because of the foreshadowing military coup. From abroad he continued to lead the political activities of the PKK. The devastating military coup in Turkey eventually took place in 1980, resulting in hundreds of thousands of detentions and widespread torture.

The PKK prepared for armed resistance and started a guerrilla war in 1984. Realising early on that a military solution was impossible either way, Ocalan tried to shift the focus to a political solution in the early 1990s. However, unilateral ceasefires by the PKK were not answered by the state.

The 1990 saw the killing of more than 30.000 people, most of them Kurds. Thousands became victims of state controlled death squads. More than 4000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, Millions became refugees. Torture was widespread and an immense number of human rights violations of every kind were committed.


Abduction and Imprisonment

In 1998, during yet another unilateral ceasefire, Turkey threatened Syria with war. Ocalan left Syria and headed for Europe to promote a political solution. Italy, where he stayed for three months, got under massive pressure from Turkey and its NATO allies.

Ocalan left Italy again and later headed for South Africa, but he never got there. On 15 February 1999 he was abducted in Kenya and handed over to the Turkish state following a clandestine operation backed by an alliance of secret services directed by their corresponding governments. The abduction sparked outrage and major protests from Kurds all over the world. Turkey saw an unprecedented rise of anti-Kurdish nationalism which brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Ocalan was brought to a prison island, Imrali that had been evacuated. From 1999 to 2009 he was the sole inmate of the prison, living in constant isolation, guarded by more than 1000 soldiers.

In prison he has authored numerous books in the form of submissions to various courts. 12 of them have been published. Some of them were translated into English, German and Italian. Several texts are also available in French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese.


Trial and Death Penalty

On 29 June 1999, after a short trial, Ocalan was sentenced to death. The trial was deemed “unfair” by a Grand Chamber judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in 2005.

The death penalty was abolished in Turkey in 2002 and his sentence commuted into “aggravated lifelong imprisonment” without the possibility of parole – in other words: prison until death.


Imprisonment Conditions

Ocalan’s prison conditions are without precedence in Europe. He is facing a regime of isolation and arbitrariness. Imrali Island is located in the Sea of Marmara between the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, on the border between Europe and Asia.

Imrali has been used as a prison island for a long time. In 1961, the first freely elected prime minister of Turkey, Adnan Menderes, was executed on the island after a military coup. The famous film director Yilmaz Guney was also once imprisoned here. The whole island has been declared a prohibited area. The passage by boat is long and exhausting for visitors.


The Prison

The prison that Abdullah Ocalan and five other prisoners are currently held in was built in 2009. All cells are solitary confinement cells. Every prisoner has a separate yard for yard exercise. The walls around these small yards are extremely high, giving the prisoner the impression of being at the ground of a well.


Isolation and Arbitrariness

Long term isolation and solitary confinement are designed to break prisoners psychologically and physically. It is therefore regarded as “white torture”.

During thirteen years as the only prisoner on Imrali Island, Ocalan has not been allowed to touch anyone. Even handshakes are forbidden. He still cannot receive letters from the outside world. He is the only prisoner in Turkey without access to television and telephone at all.

Most of the time, Ocalan could only receive visits from his siblings for 30 minutes per month and consult his lawyers for at most an hour per week. However these consultations were often blocked by the state and sometimes did not take place for months, resulting in a total isolation of Imrali Island.

Since July 2011 he has even been denied these meagre family visits and lawyers consultation sessions resulting in a total isolation imposed on him ever since.



The inhumane isolation conditions on Imrali Island have sparked wide criticism by international human rights institutions. Council of Europe’s anti-torture watchdog CPT has produced an unprecedented number of reports on Imrali Island Prison, more than on any other detention facility ever. CPT criticises heavily the isolation conditions that Abdullah Ocalan and the five other prisoners are kept in. The implementations at Imrali Island Prison have earned it the title “European Guantanamo”.

Protests and Campaigns

Since Ocalan was driven out of Syria in 1998, countless protests have taken place in Kurdistan, Turkey and abroad against his abduction, against the death penalty, against the isolation regime on Imrali Island, for Ocalan’s health, to support his political role and finally against the renewed total isolation since July 2011. Since the sheer number of protests makes it impossible to list them all here, only some remarkable protests and campaigns are mentioned.


Since 1998, numerous people in Kurdistan, in Turkish prisons and in Europe have protested against attacks on Ocalan and his isolation conditions by self-immolation.

More than 100 people have died from their self-inflicted burns in the last 15 years. While Ocalan repeatedly strongly discouraged this most extreme form of protest, Kurds have again and again chosen to sacrifice themselves.

International Initiative “Freedom for Ocalan – Peace in Kurdistan”

The International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan – Peace in Kurdistan” was founded immediately after Ocalan’s abduction to Turkey in 1999. A wide range of first signatories, among them 6 Noble Prize laureates and numerous MPs and MEPs supported the founding statement.

Focussing at first on the immediate threat of execution and later on the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey and the intolerable isolation on Imrali Island, the International Initiative has ever since informed about Ocalan’s conditions and political initiatives. The International Initiative publishes Abdullah Ocalan’s works in several European languages in the form of books and brochures.

15 February Protests

Every year around 15 February, the anniversary of Ocalan’s abduction from Kenya, Kurds demonstrate in protest in Kurdistan and abroad. Tens of thousands Kurds from all over Europe come to Strasbourg every year.

Gemlik Marches

On 9 October, the anniversary of Ocalan’s departure from Syria in 1998, demonstrations is conducted in Gemlik, the town opposite of Imrali Island. These demonstrations have been violently attacked by fascists several times.

Birthday Celebrations

Every year on April 4th, Ocalan’s birthday, Kurds flock to Amara, the village where he was born and celebrate his birthday by planting trees.

Kurdish Signature Campaign 2005-2006

In a signature campaign conducted in 200506 we saw 3.5 million people from all parts of Kurdistan signing a statement that they regard Ocalan as their political representative. This is the more remarkable as the campaign was conducted under immensely restrained circumstances and under pressure especially from the Turkish authorities to curb the campaign. Several people got jailed for several years for organising the campaign in Turkey. The huge number of signatures was confirmed by a Belgian notary.

2007 Hunger Strike

After in 2007 indications were found that Ocalan was being poisoned, a wave of protests swept over Kurdistan, Turkey and Europe. In clashes with the Turkish police several protesters were killed.

In Strasbourg, France 18 Kurdish activists went on hunger strike. The hunger strike was only terminated after 35 days when Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited Imrali Island to investigate Ocalan’s health.

Long March

From 1 February 2012 on, about 200 Kurds and their supporters marched the 400 kilometres from Geneva to Strasbourg in a “Long march for Freedom”. The march continued for 18 days in extremely cold weather. It was a protest against the renewed total isolation of Ocalan and the other prisoners on Imrali Island.

2012 Hunger Strike

From 1 March 2012 on, 15 Kurdish activists started an indefinite hunger strike in Strasbourg, France in the rooms of a church parish to protest against Ocalan’s isolation. The hunger strike lasted for 52 days.




Ocalan has been the driving force behind the shift in the Kurdish freedom movement from a predominantly military to a predominantly political and peaceful strategy. Since the first unilateral ceasefire in 1993 he has been working for a political solution. In 1995 and 1998 he initiated two more unilateral ceasefires.

A major shift came in 1999 when – against great difficulties – Ocalan managed to convince his movement to commit itself to a peaceful solution and to withdraw all armed forces from Turkish territory. This marked the beginning of the longest ceasefire in the history of the conflict which lasted for five years.

Peace groups

In a surprising move, in 1999 Ocalan suggested that two “peace groups” consisting of PKK members should return to Turkey as a sign of readiness for a peaceful solution. The groups – one consisting of unarmed guerrilla fighters and the others of Kurdish activists from Europe – indeed arrived in Turkey. All members, however, were arrested and served long prison terms.

Ten years later, in 2009, Ocalan called for another peace group. Another group of unarmed guerilla fighters and a group of refugees from the Mexmûr refugee camp crossed the border from Iraq to Turkey.

They were not arrested immediately but welcomed frenetically by Kurds who hoped that “the war had finally ended” (as some newspapers headlined). Later, however, many members of the peace groups were arrested and received prison sentences.

Prison writings

While in prison, Ocalan authored numerous books some of which have been translated. Starting with the defence speech in the show trial at Imrali Island that would lead to his death sentence, Ocalan consistently argues against secessionism and for a peaceful coexistence of the peoples without changing the political borders.

In the numerous books that he authored while in prison he developed this argumentation even further. Despite the inhuman conditions under which he being held at the Imrali prison, Ocalan is to this day using his energy to work for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question as far as his conditions permit. His visions and strategies had a major influence on Kurdish politics in the last decades.

Road Map for Negotiations

In 2009 Ocalan announced that he was going to write a “road map” and made a call for suggestions and opinions. This sparked a wide debate inside Turkey. He completed the road map on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the armed struggle. The state authorities, however, confiscated the text. It was published in English in 2012.

The “Oslo Process”

From 2009 until mid 2011, secret negotiations were held between Ocalan, a government appointed delegation of the Turkish state and senior PKK members (the so-called “Oslo Process”).

Based on the “Road Map” drawn up by Abdullah Ocalan, three protocols were agreed on. These protocols contained a phased plan for an end of the conflict and a political solution to the Kurdish issue. The Turkish government, however, chose not to implement the plan and started even larger waves of arrests than before and major military operations in June 2011.



Renewed Isolation – A Continued Human Rights Violation

After more than two years of negotiations between Ocalan and the Turkish government about a political solution to the Kurdish question, the total isolation has been renewed.

Since 27 July 2011, the prisoners on Imrali Island have been completely isolated from the outside world. More than fourteen months have passed without a visit, without a letter, without a phone call. This is the longest period of total isolation during the 13 years that Imrali Island has served as a “maximum security prison”.

At the same time it became known that for the past five years there had been intensive contacts between the Turkish government and Ocalan. A series of talks had been conducted. These negotiations had even lead up to a written draft agreement which the government then refused to implement. Instead the Erdogan government changed its strategy and started an all out attack on the Kurdish opposition.

Deprivation of the Right to Defence

Defending Ocalan has always been a difficult task. His lawyers have been harassed and threatened for a long time. They faced numerous law suits and many were banned from the case according to a new law. Numerous applications to the European Court of Human Rights are pending because of the imprisonment conditions.

In November 2011 several law offices were raided by the police. The files of the ongoing ECHR cases were confiscated. 36 lawyers that represented Ocalan were arrested in an attempt to deprive him of the right to legal defence, a crucial right for a state under the rule of law. The lawyers are still in prison awaiting trial.

The Political Dimension

The ongoing isolation of Abdullah Ocalan is a serious human rights violation. But it is more than “just” a human rights issue. It has some serious political implications.

Abdullah Ocalan is accepted by a wide ranging community and commentators as being the national leader and political representative of the Kurdish people.

He is the most high-profile Kurdish politician in Turkey. More than 3,5 million Kurds have signed a declaration recognising him as a political representative.

In Kurdistan and Turkey, everybody knows that a political solution to the Kurdish issue has to be negotiated with him. Since 1999, every government of Turkey has recognised this fact and led talks with Abdullah Ocalan on Imrali Island—although no government admitted this until 2010. The latest talks between the Erdogan government and Ocalan started in 2009 and lasted for two and a half years.

To close the doors of dialogue means to open up the gates of violence. When the government broke off the talks in mid 2011, Prime Minister Erdogan hoped to crush the Kurdish opposition with new mass arrests of politicians and with military operations.

This has already led to massacres like the killing of 35 civilians in Roboskî/Şirnak by Turkish aerial bombardment. A new spiral of violence and counter violence may be imminent.

The government strategy of violence and tension is leading nowhere. It almost certainly brings more fighting and bloodshed. The only alternative to violence is dialogue. Ocalan has proven that he is ready and able to lead such a dialogue.

International Initiative

Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan — Peace in Kurdistan

P.O. Box 100511, D50445 Cologne