Understanding the Turkey-Kurd Conflict
This article was first posted on March 2, 1999.
Who is Ocalan?
Abdullah Ocalan, leader of rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), was convicted of treason and separatism on June 29, 1999, and sentenced to death. He was accused of leading a 15-year war that has left more than 35,000 people dead.
Ocalan (pronounced OH-ja-lan) had been captured in Nairobi on February 16, after spending more than a decade on Turkey's "most wanted" list. He offered to work for peace between the rebels and the government in exchange for leniency, but promised a "bloodbath" if he were executed. In the wake of the verdict, Kurdish guerrillas unleashed a wave of attacks on police and civilians throughout Turkey.
Other European countries have harshly criticized the sentencing, which was upheld in November 1999 following the decision's appeal. On Jan. 12, 2000, the Turkish government announced that Ocalan's sentence would be suspended until the case is reviewed by a European court. If Turkey goes forward with Ocalan's execution, the country may jeopardize its chance to join the European Union.
Many Kurds feel Ocalan's death would deal a critical blow to their centuries-long struggle to gain a land they can call their own. Recent military defeats, as well as the Turkish government's offers of leniency towards guerrillas who lay down their arms, have already thrown the movement into disarray.
The PKK has been the strongest Kurdish revolutionary organization for several years. With their cultural identity under oppression and a scarcity of prominent Kurdish figures to advance their cause, many Kurds had invested their hope in Ocalan.
Facts About the Struggle