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Ocalan remains a potent symbol in Turkey

Protests are expected on the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

ISTANBUL // When Turkish agents arrested Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, in a commando operation in Kenya 10 years ago Sunday, Ankara hoped the long and bloody struggle with Ocalan's PKK rebel group would soon be over. But the PKK - and Ocalan - continue to pose problems for Turkey. Ocalan, who had been forced from his long-time home in Syria by Turkish pressure in 1998, embarked on an odyssey through several European countries and ended up in the residence of the Greek ambassador in Nairobi. He was on his way from there to the airport on Feb 15 1999 when he was arrested by Turkish agents and put on a plane to Turkey.

Following the arrest, violent protests by Kurds erupted all over Europe. Ocalan was put on trial on the prison island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul and sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison, after Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2002. Ocalan is the only prisoner on the heavily guarded prison island and is allowed only visits from close relatives and his lawyers.

"Ocalan has a high symbolic value for some Kurds," Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert on Kurdish militants at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, or TEPAV, a think tank in Ankara, said yesterday. Mr Ozcan said part of the reason behind this was a "leadership culture" that was still strong in south-eastern Anatolia. The respect enjoyed by Ocalan was similar to that shown to clan chiefs in the region.

Called "leader of the Kurdish people" by his followers and "head of the PKK terrorist organisation and separatist leader" by Turkish officials and media, the 60-year-old Ocalan still triggers strong feelings in Turkey. The Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, and many Kurds in Turkey see Ocalan as the embodiment of Kurdish identity, while state institutions and many Turks regard him as the driving force behind a war that has killed tens of thousands of people since the PKK took up arms to fight for Kurdish autonomy in 1984.

"For Kurds, there is no solution to this problem without Ocalan," said Ramazan Pekgoz, a board member of the pro-Kurdish Gunluk publishing company. "Kurds want Ocalan to be accepted as an interlocutor" of the Turkish state, something that Ankara rejects. Mr Pekgoz said he expected widespread protests in Turkey's Kurdish region on the 10th anniversary of Ocalan's arrest. Protests began even before the anniversary. Earlier this week, several provinces in the Kurdish region in south-eastern Anatolia saw demonstrations by Kurdish youths commemorating Ocalan's arrest and protesting against what they call the "plot of Feb 15", pro-Kurdish media reported. Ocalan's supporters talk of a plot because the PKK leader is said to have been captured with the help of US intelligence.

Mr Ozcan said the protests had also to be seen in connection with Turkey's upcoming local elections on March 29. "The PKK wants to raise tensions" before polling day, because the organisation wanted to polarise between those who voted for the main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, and those who favoured "the state", Mr Ozcan said. In a meeting with his lawyers on Imrali last month, Ocalan called on Kurds not to vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP says it wants to end the DTP's reign in town halls across the Kurdish area in the upcoming elections.

With political tensions running high, reports of alleged ill-treatment of Ocalan on Imrali have fanned the flames. Last year, reports saying he had been subjected to a haircut against his will triggered demonstrations in Turkey's south-east. The justice ministry denied that Ocalan had been forced to have a haircut. "The smallest thing that happens on Imrali has repercussions in the Kurdish area," Mr Pekgoz said.

Other rumours in recent years said that Ocalan was being slowly poisoned on Imrali or that he had been beaten by Turkish soldiers. While supporters see Ocalan as a living symbol of the Kurdish cause, the Turkish judiciary is very sensitive to what it regards as PKK propaganda surrounding the jailed rebel leader. Some of Ocalan's lawyers and supporters have been put on trial for calling him "Mr Ocalan", with prosecutors arguing that the honorific for someone sentenced to life in prison amounted to "praise for a criminal", which can result in up to two years in prison.

Earlier this week, a prosecutor in Adiyaman in south-eastern Turkey opened an investigation against several DTP members for spreading propaganda of a terrorist organisation. The DTP politicians, who are running as candidates in the local elections next month, had posed for pictures in front of a photograph of Ocalan. During his trial on Imrali, Ocalan called on the PKK to stop fighting and withdraw from Turkey. Thousands of rebels regrouped in northern Iraq and the fighting between the PKK and Turkish security forced died down for several years. The truce ended in 2005 when a group linked to the PKK killed five people in a bomb attack in the Aegean resort town of Kusadasi. Since then, the PKK has stepped up its attacks, despite a cross-border military intervention by Turkey in northern Iraq last year which had the aim of flushing out rebels from the area near the border.

Leyla Zana, a prominent Kurdish politician, told the European Parliament last year that only Ocalan could stop the violence. She added that an end to Ocalan's isolation on Imrali could help to secure a ceasefire. Turkey's justice minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin, said late last year that five or six inmates from other Turkish prisons may be transferred to Imrali after the erection of new buildings there.

But Mr Pekgoz said announcements like that did not amount to a substantial change in Ankara's position. "It's just cosmetics," he said. "The state has not taken any concrete steps." tseibert@thenational.ae